From beliefs and spells to the scientific method: A long slow journey for the art of Medicine
The title of the first Harry Potter book is “The Philosopher’s Stone”, however copies printed in North America, carry the title: ‘The Sorcerer’s Stone’. The ‘philosopher’s stone’ was a mythical device used by alchemists and magicians aspiring to transform substances such as base metals into gold.
In the hands of famous XVI century physicians such as Paracelsus, alchemy was a tool used for ‘materia medica’ a pharmaceutical arsenal used in the treatment of patients and their ailments. The creation of drugs, potions and salves required knowledge of botany, access to herbaria and the work involved created a kind of ‘proto science’. On one occasion Paracelsus analyzed the composition of a meteor and finding that it was composed of iron and stone, told its finders that there was no point worshipping it, it wasn’t a sign from heaven, just an object that fell from the sky. He was just as tactless in confronting his medical colleagues who were mired in the teaching of Galen, a second century Greco-Roman physician and surgeon whose works had such power over medieval medical minds, that they stopped asking questions, leaving medicine utterly unhelpful in the face of epidemic bacterial diseases and rising threats such as diabetes mellitus, a once rare disease that now began to grow in frequency as new ways of making money and new demands for imports of sugar and fine goods began to transform society.
Another form of transformation was the demand for religious reformation and the iconoclastic forces that it set in motion. On one side of the line, religious orthodoxy and magical thinking, on the other a demand for accuracy in tracking the movement of planets, developing a more humane approach to surgery and medicine and translating religious texts into languages that gave new meaning to religious belief. These new intellectual ventures had the effect of putting man at the center of the universe and displacing divine authority and the prestige of those who chose to interpret it. Wars resulted and people suffered.
Surgeons such as Ambroise Pare developed new ways to heal wounds; anatomists such as Andreas van Wessel, threw aside the texts of Galen performed his own dissections, made meticulous drawings and woodcuts and had the wisdom to ask the artist Johan van Calcar, a student of Titian, to illustrate his great textbook on human anatomy. At the same time, great artists such as Leonardo and Michelangelo followed the instruction of the art theorist Leon Alberti, to study and practice anatomy, so that both painting and sculpture could more faithfully render images of both surface and the structures that underlie it. Both anatomists and artists found common purpose in a relentless emphasis on accuracy; over the next century this was to lead to new insights into human physiology, as William Harvey, a student at Padua, was influenced by the work of Vesalius, Fallopio and Fabricius.
As Vesalius and Paracelsus challenged the authority of Galen, the work of Copernicus challenged the authority of Ptolemy, advancing the work of astronomers and navigators while also giving comfort to astrologers who also needed accurate information about planetary activities so as to lend credence to their speculations. But there was a very high price to pay for those who chose to advance human knowledge, especially if they offended and insulted ‘the powers that be’. Michael Servetus paid with his life, Paracelsus died impoverished, leaving his books and manuscripts undervalued and ignored, Vesalius settled for private practice and poor William Harvey lost most of his practice when his patients took offense at his success in research. They took the view that if he was that good in research he mustn’t be much of a practitioner. No wonder magic and the Philosopher’s Stone retained such enduring appeal!
Date: May 17, 2012
Time: 12:00 - 1:00 pm
Location: Biomedical Library Events Room
Dr. Powell is Professor of Pathology (Neuropathology) and directs the Clinical Electron Microscopy service at UC San Diego Medical Center. He teaches medical and pharmacy students and co-directs the Histology and Pathology “threads” for the School of Medicine. His work has focused on pathology of the peripheral nervous system and he has produced about two hundred publications related to his research interests in the effects of diabetes on the peripheral nervous system. From 2006-2007 he served as chair of the divisional Academic Senate at UC San Diego, and from 2008-2010 as Vice Chair and Chair of the systemwide Academic Council and Faculty Representative to the UC Regents. Dr Powell's interests include the history of medicine as well as the history of recorded music.