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Transforming medicine and science

In this video we look at how print transformed medicine and science.
Just as books were essential to the success of the European religious reformation, the printing revolution also transformed medicine and science in early modern Europe. The year 1543 witnessed the publication of two texts which would radically change the mediaeval and early 16th century world view. The first was by a Polish mathematician and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, who fundamentally changed our view of our place in the cosmos. Before Copernicus’s groundbreaking book, De Revolutionibus Orbius Coelestis, on the revolution of the spheres, books had described the mediaeval view of the cosmos, which placed Earth at the centre of the solar system. Copernicus challenged this view. Our second text moves away from the cosmos to focus on the human body.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica, (On the Fabric of the Human Body), was by Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius, who was professor of surgery and anatomy at the most prestigious medical faculty in Europe, the University of Padua. The title page shows us Vesalius in the Anatomy Theatre of Padua surrounded by students. Above him, a young student studies a book. But the real message here is that anatomy is a hands-on pursuit. We see Vesalius in full lecture mode with his instruments beside him in the act of dissecting a corpse. Look closely and you will see that Vesalius is looking out directly at you, the reader, inviting us to take part in this anatomical dissection.
Vesalius emphasised the importance of not relying solely on the works of the second-century AD physician, Galen of Pergamon, and his medieval commentators. Instead, he advocated experiencing dissection directly. His use of the new medium of print and his carefully thought out combination of text and image ensured that his book became the standard for all subsequent anatomical studies in print. Vesalius’s findings challenged the galenical understanding of the anatomy of the human body. But a more serious challenge was to come in the early 17th century when an English physician, William Harvey, completely overturned the centuries old galenic understanding of how the body worked by advocating the circulation of the blood.
Early modern physicians also played a fundamental role in the exploration of early modern plants and animals. They, too, shared their findings via the medium of print. During the 16th century, a range of fully illustrated herbals were printed. These, such as Leonhart Fuchs’ De historia stirpium of 1542, used the new invention of printing to the full. Although they naturally focused on the medicinal uses of plants, they also provided important information on their appearance and naming. This led in the 17th century to a drive towards classification of plants by botanists such as Caspar Bauhin. Ultimately, this systematization of plants would in the 18th century culminate in the Linnaean system of plant classification.
Print not only played an important role in publishing cutting edge research by physicians and scientists, such as Sir Isaac Newton. By making their research widely available, it encouraged international scientific exchange, which in turn led to new scientific research projects.

Just as books were essential to the success of the European religious reformation, the printing revolution also transformed medicine and science in early modern Europe.

In the video, Elizabethanne talks about how the printing of books on herbal plants in the 16th century led to the classification of plants by botanists in the 17th century.

  • What other medical or scientific innovations do you think resulted from the invention of print?
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The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: 1450 to 1800

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