Medical Advancements Leading to Real Progress in the 18th Century

Early on, the civilize world saw the study of nature as essential to the welfare of all mankind. The 16th Century saw great strides. Nicolaus Copernicus was a Renaissance mathematician and astronomer who formulated a model of the universe that placed the Sun rather than the Earth at its center. The publication of this model in his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) just before his death in 1543 is considered a major event in the history of science, triggering the Copernican Revolution and making an important contribution to the Scientific Revolution.

Galileo Galilei was an Italian physicist, mathematician, engineer, astronomer, and philosopher who played a major role in the scientific revolution during the Renaissance. His achievements include improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations and support for Copernicanism. His contributions to observational astronomy include the telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, the discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter (named the Galilean moons in his honour), and the observation and analysis of sunspots. Galileo also worked in applied science and technology, inventing an improved military compass and other instruments.


1543 Source/Photographer Page xii of De humani corporis fabrica (1534 edition), showing portrait of Andreas Vesalius. wikipedia

Meanwhile, Andreas Vesalius was an anatomist, physician, and author of one of the most influential books on human anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). Vesalius is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy. He was born in Brussels, which though now part of Belgium, was then part of the Habsburg Netherlands. He was professor at the University of Padua and later became Imperial physician at the court of Emperor Charles V. One must keep in mind that Vesalius faced much prejudice from the ecclesiastical enthusiasts for his work.

In the middle of the 16th Century (1532), an Act of Parliament in England provided for the “institution of Commissions of Sewers in all parts of the Kingdom.” (Fitzgerald, John Gerald, et. al., An Introduction to the Practice of Preventive Medicine, page 653.)

The 17th Century saw the publication of “Novum Organum.” The Novum Organum, full original title Novum Organum Scientiarum (‘new instrument of science’), is a philosophical work by Francis Bacon, written in Latin and published in 1620. The title is a reference to Aristotle’s work Organon, which was his treatise on logic and syllogism. InNovum Organum, Bacon details a new system of logic he believes to be superior to the old ways of syllogism. This is now known as the Baconian method.


The title page illustration of Instauratio magna Francis Bacon (author) – *EC.B1328.620ib, Houghton Library, Harvard University Houghton Library at Harvard University Location Cambridge, MA Public Domain

Also, in the 17th Century we find the accomplishments of William Harvey. Harvey (1 April 1578 – 3 June 1657) was an English physician. He was the first known to describe completely and in detail the systemic circulation and properties of blood being pumped to the brain and body by the heart, though earlier writers, such as Jacques Dubois, had provided precursors of the theory.

Even so, it was the 18th Century’s domain to develop modern preventive medicine. Richard Mead’s advice, for example, during the plague of 1663-1665 became crystalized in the legal decrees of George I, especially in the practice of quarantines.

Sir John Pringle, 1st Baronet, PRS (10 April 1707 – 18 January 1782) was a Scottish physician who has been called the “father of military medicine.” In 1742 he became physician to the Earl of Stair, then commanding the British army in Flanders. About the time of the battle of Dettingen in Bavaria in June 1743, when the British army was encamped at Aschaffenburg, Pringle, through the Earl of Stair, brought about an agreement with the Duc de Noailles, the French commander, that military hospitals on both sides be considered as neutral, immune sanctuaries for the sick and wounded, and should be mutually protected. His first book, Observations on the Nature and Cure of Hospital and Jayl Fevers, was published in 1750, and in the same year he contributed to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society three papers on Experiments on Septic and Antiseptic Substances, which gained him the Copley Medal. Two years later he published his important work, Observations on the Diseases of the Army in Camp and Garrison, which entitles him to be regarded as the founder of modern military medicine. Pringle’s work “resulted in a diminution in the incidence of typhus fever and enterie disease.” (Fitzgerald, pg. 653)


James Lind via Wikipedia

James Lind introduced the idea of “dietetic measures” with his Treatise on Scurvy in 1753. James Lind (4 October 1716 – 13 July 1794) was a Scottish physician. He was a pioneer of naval hygiene in the Royal Navy. By conducting the first ever clinical trial,he developed the theory that citrus fruits cured scurvy. He argued for the health benefits of better ventilation aboard naval ships, the improved cleanliness of sailors’ bodies, clothing and bedding, and below-deck fumigation with sulphur and arsenic. He also proposed that fresh water could be obtained by distilling sea water. His work advanced the practice of preventive medicine and improved nutrition.


Richard Mead via Wikipedia

Richard Mead (11 August 1673 – 16 February 1754) was an English physician. His work, A Short Discourse concerning Pestilential Contagion, and the Method to be used to prevent it (1720), was of historic importance in the understanding of transmissible diseases. Mead considered quarantine  a preventive medicine – separating the healthy from the sick – essential to suppressing the contagions of the time. 

Captain James Cook gave a notation in his many journals to the teachings of Pringle, Mead, and others during Cook’s great voyage of discovery. He received the gold medal from the Royal Society of London for his paper on the preservation of his sailors from scurvy. (Sala, G. A., and E. H. Yates, editors, Temple Bar, Volume 94, page 373.) Cook’s voyage lasted for a little over 3 years, but during that time, despite being beset with numerous difficulties, only one man out of his 118 man crew died. This was unprecedented at the time, and Cook gave credit to the application of hygienic rules and dietetic measures advocated by James Lind to his crew’s success.


Edward Jenner (1749- 1823), Discoverer of vaccination. James Northcote – National Portrait Gallery – Public Domain

Next we find the work of Edward Jenner, who was an English physician and scientist who was the pioneer of smallpox vaccine, the world’s first vaccine. He is often called “the father of immunology,” and his work is said to have “saved more lives than the work of any other human.”

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Medical Advancements Leading to Real Progress in the 18th Century

  1. MaryAnn Nagy says:

    Inventions in medicine are interesting from the beginning of time and still to this day, they continue to research and invent! I have always been interested in medicine. Being a nurse most of my life, I still am enthralled with learning about the history and inventions that lead to cures. I am lucky to have a daughter who has a pHd in nursing research and ethics who teaches at their graduate program. So therefore, she and I talk about nursing!
    This was a very interesting article and thanks for all your research!

    • I am doing some medical research of late on hydrocephaly because it is a plot point in an upcoming book. At one time, I thought to be a nurse (became a teacher instead because of familial influence).

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