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Author: Tom Streissguth
Editor: Konrad Eisenbichler
Date: 2008
The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of The Renaissance
Publisher: Greenhaven Press
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1360L

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The practice of medicine in the early Renaissance was still bound by the study of the ancient Greek doctors and writers, in particular Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and the second-century physician Galen. The writings of Galen were the accepted teaching in universities and sanctioned by the Catholic Church, which held control through the universities over the training of professional doctors. Galen's own anatomical knowledge was limited, however, by a prohibition on human dissection, a practice still banned by the medieval church. Thus the limitations of Galen's knowledge persisted for a thousand years within Europe, even as the church held his teachings to be infallible.

A new approach to knowledge and investigation of science bloomed in the Renaissance. Old methods and treatments came under question. The German philosopher Paracelsus was the son of a physician, and one of the most important figures of Renaissance medicine. He believed that sickness resulted from imbalances of essential minerals and chemicals in the body, and prescribed medicines meant to correct these imbalances. He also investigated the action of poisons, and hit upon the idea that a toxic substance, when applied in a limited dose, can cure the body of illness. Paracelsus applied his theories to the treatment of miners, who seemed to have several dangerous illnesses in common that resulted from their occupation and not from the state of their bodily humors (fluids) or their souls.

In the generation of Paracelsus, new treatments for sickness and injuries were developed, which bypassed many of the old superstitions of the medieval age. The French surgeon Ambroise Pare developed the use of ligatures to close battlefield wounds, a method intended to deter infection and avoid the complications caused by sealing wounds with burning irons. Pare set down his findings in Method of Treating Wounds Inflicted by Arquebuses and other Guns, which after its publication in 1545 became a standard medical textbook for military doctors. For the majority of the population, however, medical practice still held to medieval traditions, and spiritual healing was still the most commonplace approach to sickness. Barber/surgeons set bones, pulled teeth, carried out bloodlettings, and performed amputations of infected limbs. Ordinary medical doctors still relied on the philosophy of the four humors of the body (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) to diagnose illness and prescribe treatment. Apothecaries and herbalists offered a wide range of plant and animal products to apply or to ingest, mixtures designed to heal disease through their sheer repulsiveness.

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The discovery of new land in the Western Hemisphere and Asia also had an important impact on Renaissance medicine, bringing new treatments and medicines to Europe. University professors and doctors put dissection and the new microscope to work to explore the human body, while artists such as Leonardo da Vinci undertook their own investigations in order to render the human body as realistically as possible. The first translation of Galen's work On Anatomical Procedures into Latin was accomplished in 1531 by Johannes Guinter. In this book Galen recommends human dissection, a stand that promoted the practice by doctors and scientists in the late Renaissance. A new age of investigation was opened up, led by anatomists such as Andreas Vesalius, a professor of surgery at the University of Padua, the academic center of medicine in the Renaissance. Vesalius was the first to practice public dissection before students on human corpses. His book On the Structure of the Human Body, first published in 1543, offered detailed and accurate anatomical drawings. These investigations culminated in the discovery of the circulation of the blood by William Harvey, an English doctor who published On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals in 1628.

SEE ALSO: Paracelsus

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3205500206