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Breakthroughs in Medicine & Chemistry: Examples & Empiricism

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the medical and chemical breakthroughs which occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries as part of the era's increased emphasis on empiricism and the concurring Scientific Revolution.

Medicine and Chemistry of the Scientific Revolution

Medicine today is relatively dependable: when you're sick, you can go to the doctor or hospital and be fairly certain they are going to correctly diagnose your problem and send you home with a suitable remedy. But, doctors and their prescriptions were not always as helpful as they are today. For a long period of human history, healing the sick was largely guesswork based on religious teachings or maxims that were propagated with little knowledge of the actual human body.

This trend began to change during the era of the scientific revolution and the increased emphasis on observation, experimentation, and the scientific method - in a word, empiricism.

Medicine Before the Scientific Revolution

Medicine before the scientific revolution was largely based on the work and teachings of Galen, a second-century Roman physician to the gladiators of Pergamum. Many of Galen's techniques were based on observation and experimentation, and he made many dissections on humans and animals. Although this methodology was largely lost in the West, over the next millennium, his theories were widely accepted as fact throughout Western Europe. Most prevalent and important of these theories was that Galen believed sickness was caused by imbalances in the four humors and temperaments of the body. Being too cold, too hot, too wet, or too dry could throw these humors out of balance and cause illness in someone.

A whole host of primitive and at times detrimental procedures were developed during the Middle Ages based on Galen's theories. For example, some illnesses were believed to be caused by an excess of blood in the body, which the physician then treated by draining moderate quantities of blood out of the patient. There's some speculation that this process of bloodletting led to the death of President George Washington - himself a believer in the technique - in 1799.

Chemistry Before the Scientific Revolution

Chemistry prior to the scientific revolution was similarly prone to inaccuracies due to basic misunderstandings of nature and the elements. Most people in the Middle Ages still believed in the Aristotelian model of the world, which stated that all substances in the world were composed of combinations of four basic elements: fire, air, water, and earth.

Furthermore, the chemistry of the Middle Ages was not similar to or used for the same purposes as the chemistry we have today. Most chemically inclined scientists prior to the scientific revolution were preoccupied with turning baser metals such as lead or copper into something more valuable - most often gold or silver. This process, which we know today is virtually impossible, became known as alchemy.

New Ideas: Paracelsus

As new methods of investigation and analysis based on empiricism began to take root in the early modern period, these age-old myths about the composition of our bodies and the basic elements began to fall. Arguably, the first man who began this change in Western Europe was the Swiss-born chemist Paracelsus. Active in the first half of the 16th century, Paracelsus favored experimentation as the key to understanding the world, and he rejected common practices like bloodletting and the theory that disease was caused by bodily imbalances. Instead, Paracelsus claimed diseases were caused by 'bad seeds,' and he so detested Galen's theories that he publicly burned copies of the Roman's work.

New Ideas: Andreas Vesalius

Whereas Paracelsus provided a new, more accurate theoretical framework for medical theory, much of the observation and discoveries about the human body were made by his Flemish contemporary, Andreas Vesalius. Vesalius made countless dissections of the human body, making important discoveries which contradicted Galen's maxims; for instance, Vesalius correctly identified that the human heart had four chambers. Galen, who had likely based his conclusions on the dissections of dogs, claimed it only had two.

Vesalius also created the world's first medical textbook, De Humani Corporis Fabrica. The book was published in 1543 and contained numerous detailed illustrations of the human body and networks of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels.

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