Ancient Medicine during Renaissance to Early Modern period 16th-18th century


The Renaissance brought an intense focus on scholarship to Christian Europe. A major effort to translate the Arabic and Greek scientific works into Latin emerged. Europeans gradually became experts not only the ancient writings of the Romans and Greeks, but in the contemporary writings of Islamic scientists. During the later centuries of the Renaissance came an increase in experimental investigation, particularly in the field of dissection and body examination, thus advancing our knowledge of human anatomy.


The development of modern neurology began in the 16th century with Vesalius, who described the anatomy of the brain and other organs. He had little knowledge of the brain’s function, thinking that it resided mainly in the ventricles. Over his lifetime he corrected over 200 of Galen’s mistakes. Understanding of medical sciences and diagnosis improved, but with little direct benefit to health care. Few effective drugs existed, beyond opium and quinine. Folklore cures and potentially poisonous metal-based compounds were popular treatments. Independently from Ibn al-Nafis, Michael Servetus rediscovered the Pulmonary circulation. But this discovery did not reach the public because it was written down for the first time in the “Manuscript of Paris” in 1546, and later published in the theological work which he paid with his life in 1553. Later this was perfected by Renaldus Columbus and Andrea Cesalpino.  Later William Harvey correctly described the circulatory system. The most useful tomes in medicine used both by students and expert physicians were De Materia  Medica and Pharmacopoea


Paracelsus (1493–1541), was an erratic and abusive innovator who rejected Galen and bookish knowledge, calling for experimental research, with heavy doses of mysticism, alchemy and magic mixed in. He rejected sacred magic (miracles) under Church auspices and looked for cures in nature.  He preached but he also pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. His hermetical views were that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of man (microcosm) and Nature (macrocorm). He took an approach different from those before him, using this analogy not in the manner of soul-purification but in the manner that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them..  Most of his influence came after his death. Paracelsus is a highly controversial figure in the history of medicine, with most experts hailing him as a Father of Modern Medicine for shaking off religious orthodoxy and inspiring many researchers; others say he was a mystic more than a scientist and downplay his importance.

Padua and Bologna

University training of physicians began in the 13th century.

The University of Padua was founded about 1220 by walkouts from the  University of Bologna, and began teaching medicine in 1222. It played a leading role in the identification and treatment of diseases and ailments, specializing in autopsies and the inner workings of the body. Starting in 1595, Padua’s famous anatomical theatre drew artists and scientists studying the human body during public dissections. The intensive study of Galen led to critiques of Galen modeled on his own writing, as in the first book of Vesalius’s De Humani  Corporis Fabrica. Andreas Vesalius held the chair of Surgery and Anatomy  and in 1543 published his anatomical discoveries in  De Humani  Corporis Fabrica. He portrayed the human body as an interdependent system of organ groupings. The book triggered great public interest in dissections and caused many other European cities to establish anatomical theatres.

At the University of Bologna, the training of physicians began in 1219. The Italian city attracted students from across Europe. Taddeo Alderotti built a tradition of medical education that established the characteristic features of Italian learned medicine and was copied by medical schools elsewhere. Turisanus (d. 1320) was his student.  The curriculum was revised and strengthened in 1560–1590.  A representative professor was Julius Caesar Aranzi (Arantius) (1530–89). He became Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at the University of Bologna in 1556, where he established anatomy as a major branch of medicine for the first time. Aranzi combined anatomy with a description of pathological processes, based largely on his own research, Galen, and the work of his contemporary Italians. Aranzi discovered the ‘Nodules of Aranzio’ in the semilunar valves of the heart and wrote the first description of the superior levator palpebral and the coracobrachialis muscles. His books (in Latin) covered surgical techniques for many conditions, including hydrocephalous, nasal polyp, goiter and tumours to phimosis, ascitis, haemorrhoids, anal abscess and fistulae.



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