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How much really changed in medical understanding in the Renaissance?

Watch this video about the transition from the Medieval period into the renaissance.

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Title: From Medieval to Renaissance medicine

Duration: 03:37

Description: In the Medieval period, universities taught medical students only through the ancient texts. But in the Renaissance and its rebirth of learning, scholars began to ask questions and think scientifically. They went back to original Greek texts, and the Greek ideas of observation and experiment which led to the development of medicine.

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The Role of Religion

Martin Luther, a German monk, challenged the Catholic Church. This prompted large scale changes in the way that many people thought. No longer were the teachings of the church viewed as being unquestionable by all people, this led to some doctors and scientists challenging the works of Hippocrates and Galen. One of the first well known examples of Galen’s work being openly challenged is that of Paracelsus. This scientist burnt Galen’s works and denounced the linking of disease to the elements and seasons.

Martin Luther: Luther challenged the Catholic church, suggesting that it was corrupt and teaching for it’s own good, rather than the good of the people.

Paracelsus: He openly challenged the works of Galen, that had previously been the basis of Christian teachings in relation to medicine

The impact of War

The way that wars were fought had, by the Renaissance, changed from being solely the cold steel of a sword to an experience in which the devastating power of gunpowder could be unleashed against soldiers. The new weapons that emerged as a result of this led to doctors having to quickly develop new methods of treating wounds. The need to react quickly in battle also led to chance discoveries as doctors often were forced to improvised treatments. The discoveries made by Ambroise Pare are an excellent example of how this happened.

Ambroise Pare

Pare was a Barber Surgeon who worked in the French military. He stumbled across new techniques of patient care during a battle, a chance discovery. He had run out of the oil that he usually used whilst Cauterising a wound. In panic he wrapped the wounds up in linen that he had dipped into a mixture of egg whites, oil of roses and turpentine. The next day the wounds were well on the way to recovery – usually the patient had been in agony! Pare also discovered that restricting the flow of blood into a wounded area could aid treatment. This involves using ligatures.

The role of chance

As you have seen with the improvements made by Pare, chance (luck) can play an important role in the development of treatments. Other examples of chance discoveries include William Harvey seeing a water pump and realising that the heart pumped blood.

Technological advances

The Renaissance was a period of Scientific and technological revolution. The invention of the Printing Press by Gutenburg meant that ideas could be recorded and spread with much greater ease, enabling knowledge to be passed on more accurately and with greater speed. The work of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci resulted in people having a more accurate picture of the Human anatomy. Other advances included the development of the Water Pump, the invention of the Microscope, the clockwork watch and the flushing toilet.

Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci began producing ever more detailed and accurate drawings of the Human body. Their work was aided by a more relaxed attitude towards Human Dissection, which led to scientists such as William Harvey and Andreas Vesalius developing a wide range of images and theories that were accurate. These developments corrected several of the errors that Galen had made and, due to the invention of the printing press by Gutenburg, the pictures and theories were made available to scientists and doctors across Europe.
Gutenburg’s invention of the printing press is one of the most important turning points in history. Before the printing press had been created all books had to be hand written – a very time consuming job. As a result knowledge was limited to the rich, and most people couldn’t read or write. As Printing enabled cheap and quick reproduction of books more people could access knowledge and ideas could be spread to more people. This had a major impact on the development of Science and Medicine.

Peoples beliefs

Though there were many scientific and technological breakthroughs in the Renaissance, the way that people thought did not necessarily change much at all. The church still had a great influence over many people, and religious beliefs continued to influence peoples ideas about the cause of disease. Technology hadn’t yet developed to an extent whereby science could accurately explain the cause of disease, nor had it yet produced cheap and effective cures for many ailments. As a result ordinary people would still have a range of beliefs about the cause of disease – remember that many people were sceptical about the new scientific ideas – and consequently they would still make use of self punishment, apothecaries, ‘quacks’, and cures based on the theory of the four humours.

Anatomical Knowledge

Though dissection was still officially frowned upon many scientists were able to improve their understanding of the human body. Plague Victims were dissected to try and discover the cause of the disease, saints were often dissected to try and prove that they had been touched by god and pregnant women were given caesarean sections. Other doctors relied on ‘resurrection men’ to allow them to dissect. These men were paid to dig up recently buried bodies and secretly pass them on to the doctor – this was a very dangerous job as many graveyards were guarded to stop this practice. As a result of these dissections anatomical knowledge developed quickly during the Renaissance. Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey both published detailed works based on the human anatomy and made significant strides in the understanding of the body.

William Harvey made several contributions to the development of medicine. It was he who discovered that blood circulated around the whole body, disproving Galen’s assumptions. Harvey also published anatomical drawings, such as the one to the left, that illustrate the formation of muscles and the working of the human body.

Andreas Vesalius broke with tradition by dissecting bodies himself. He soon came to the conclusion that Galen couldn’t have dissected human bodies as his findings were different to those of Galen. Vesalius’ works include Tabulae anatomicae, which combined his findings with detailed anatomical paintings by Johann Stephan. His ‘Fabrica’ challenged the works of Galen and were the first break from the belief in the accuracy of Galen’s works – the work of Vesalius was not universally accepted in his lifetime though.

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Title: The rise of Vesalius.

Duration: 02:59

Description: Vesalius had a significant advantage over Galen, he was able to carry out dissections. He challenged how dissections were conducted, inviting students to see and touch. In 1543 at 28 years old he published Fabrica, a total map of the body which radically changed ideas about anatomy. But he did not explain what caused ill health. Galen's followers said he was dangerous but the Emperor made him his doctor, quietening criticism.

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The importance of training Doctors was recognised and in 1551 the Royal College of Physicians was established in London. This formalised the medical profession in this country to some extent and identified 3 broad types of doctor, physician, surgeon and apothecary. A Physician had to train at university for 14 years before being granted membership of the RCP. Despite this development physicians were not held in great regard, many people still opted to visit a wise woman rather than risk a visit to a physician – popular nicknames for physicians at the time included ‘Dr Slop’ and ‘Dr Smell’. Attempts were also made to improve the work of Barber Surgeons. The Company of barber Surgeons was established as early as 1540 in an attempt to standardise training, still the methods were brutal and conditions unhygienic – this organisation was replaced in 1745 by the Royal College of Surgeons, the ‘Barbers’ were no longer eligible for membership. Women continued to be excluded from the Medical profession.


Despite the attempts outlined above to improve the quality of Doctor, Surgeon and Physician it was still the case that surgery was dangerous and highly likely to result in the death of a patient. A number of advances were made however. Army surgeons were required to perform amputations in field hospitals and treated the wounded in the midst of battle – this led to improved knowledge of methods and led to several chance discoveries – see notes on Chance and Ambroise Pare. In addition to his chance discovery of soothing lotions pare also developed the use of Ligatures. These restrict the flow of blood into a limb, thus reducing the loss of blood. This improves the patients chances of surviving and increases the amount of time that a surgeon has to work on, for example, an amputation. Pare published his ‘Works on Surgery’ in 1575 thanks to the backing of the French King – and despite the opposition of French physicians.





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