The Evolution of Medicine of the Common People

by TheOfficialXunWah on October 26, 2016 - 11:03am

Empirical Observations:


              The Way to Health is a medical handbook written by Thomas Tryon, who was born in 1634 and died in 1703. This book focuses on the basic ways of staying healthy and various ways to prevent people from having unbalanced humors. The copy that is provided by McGill’s Osler Library is a second-hand edition of the original book and it was published in 1691. The book is an octavo with a size that is roughly 20 x 12 cm and weighs around 3.5 pounds. The Way to Health is very different compared to other respected medical books. Unlike other prestigious huge early modern medical books, The Way to Health is a small handbook. The cover of the book looks empty and plain, it also doesn’t have any elegant patterns. The book’s backstrip was also redone with leather, however, it still has it’s original binding. This handbook has 520 pages and because it’s an octavo, it required 65 sheets of paper to assemble. The pages are in fantastic condition with small amounts of watermarks and there were also no illustrations. As for the language, it was written in English with basic vocabulary and multiple spelling mistakes.




              The medical knowledge in the 16th to 17th century is very different compared to the medical knowledge we have nowadays. We currently focus more on various ways of curing deadly diseases, instead, many centuries ago, people focused more on how to prevent getting sick or the preservation of one’s health. Similar to what Cook once wrote, their focus was “on the exercise of reason rather than the art of treating diseases”, the recipes written in the book were mostly used to maintain one’s health and prolonging their life rather than focusing on ways to cure the  disease (Cook 409).


             Many people in the early modern era primarily based their medical knowledge from empirical observations. For example, according to Cook, their observations lead them to the conclusion that the human body is composed of four humors that would determine one’s personality and characteristic traits. The four humors were: Yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood (Cook 410). This empirical thinking would lead people to think that an unbalance of these humors would cause someone to get sick. Which is why most methods of treating diseases in the early modern era were searching for ways to balance the irregular humor of the patient. However, unlike the 16th century, our medical knowledge was accumulated from not only empirical observations but also the use of the scientific method and verifiable results. This would also create a revolutionary transition from how to prevent the spread of a disease to how to cure them.


               The book, The Way to Health, is written and “made easie and familiar to the meanest capacities” for people with a minimal understanding of the early modern medicine (Tryon 1). Unlike other prestigious medical books that were written primarily in Latin, this books is written in English to target the uneducated and impoverished side of the population. For example, the book’s table of contents only contains homemade medical recipes that helped maintain one’s health with limited explanations of the science behind it, which demonstrates that this isn’t a book that was written for sophisticated physicists rather than it was written for inexperienced peasants. This would be a book that a person would have in their house, who can’t afford medical services and has an inadequate understanding of medicine. This book is very similar to our modern day’s WebMD, which is a site that answers anyone’s medical questions and is accessible to the population.


Works Cited

Tryon, Thomas. The Way to Health. London: Baldwin, 1691. Print.

Harold J. Cook, "Medicine," in Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003): 407-434.


I liked the direct link made between this book and the our modern period. It is easy to draw the similarity that both periods have members of the population who do not have access to medical attention. What is intelligent is how you were able to take your point a step further and relate this book to the Internet webpage WebMD, which is known to be a source for medical information for those who do not have access to medical attention or who are looking for quick answers. This is the first direct comparison I have seen and it strengthens the argument you have made. I think the inclusion of the four humours is important in your text, but I wonder if the four humours would be considered empirical. The influence of rationalism can be questioned since the four humours were justified through reason and Vesalius introduce empiricism when he began to peel the skin of dead corpses and analyzed through sight the true structure and composition of the human body.