A Flash of Medicine's Past

by Student98 on October 26, 2016 - 3:15pm

Empirical Observations

“The Way to Health” by Thomas Tryon is a 17th century health/medical reference book. Published in 1691 as a second edition, it is a small, portable book, measuring approximately 12 (length) by 22 (height) by 3 (width) centimetres and weighing roughly 3.5 pounds. Tryon’s medical reference book contains instructions on how to eat, exercise and behave in order to keep a healthy body. This book is an octavo, meaning each printing sheet was divided into 8 equal pieces during the production of the book. That is why the book totals 520 pages (520 divided by 8 equals 65, thus 65 total printing sheets required to produce this book).


The exterior of the book is coated by a semi worn-out, plain, brown, leather cover and the title is demonstrated in miniscule letters on the spine of the book. Tryon’s book is written in simple English. The font is clear and easily legible: it resembles the Times New Roman font on Microsoft Word. The cover of the book is most likely original, but it is evident that the book has been rebacked; the spine is not tearing, it is seemingly new and the colour differs the colour of the rest of the book. The book is questionably worn out as the pages have many water stains and there are occasional holes, but oddly, compared to many other books of its generation, it is in quite remarkable condition.


The book has no marginalia besides a couple of names from the previous owners and a sketch of a human’s profile. The book does not include any illustrations. The book has a dry and old smell: comparable to the stereotypic smell associated with an elderly’s home. This book does not fit the description of a modern medical book: it seems to resemble a child’s fairy tale book or a personal diary/journal when compared to books of the modern era. This book likely belonged to a woman (a house wife) during the late 17th/early 18th century, as a medical reference book.



Similarities and differences can be observed between early modern medical knowledge and medical knowledge of our generation.


When reading “Medicine” by Cook, the author suggests that the building blocks for modern medicine are in place by the early 18th century. Cook wrote that “by the beginning of the eighteenth century, …. medical knowledge derived from detailed observations,” whereas in the early modern period, medicine, categorized with the science of physic, was based on the four humours and used rationalism for producing medical knowledge (Cook 433). Cook specifically identifies that “by the end of the seventeenth century, what had been for Avicenna a less than precise bodily ‘matter’ expressing itself through flows of urine, feces, blood and phlegm had become materialized with precision” (Cook 342).


Cook’s limitation to writing the entire history of medicine as though it must fit as a single chapter in a textbook forced him to neglect certain discrepancies. In Tryon’s medical reference book, the title page shows how the presence of the birth of modern medicine is not as evidently seen as Cook is forced to make it seem to be. Tryon describes his book as, “The whole treatise displaying the most hidden secrets of philosophy,” (Tryon I). Based on Cook’s claims, by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, philosophy and rationalism are no longer used for producing medical knowledge (philosophy and medicine separate), yet Tryon uses philosophy as a selling point, demonstrating the presence of the ongoing presence of categorizing medicine with philosophy.


In modern medicine, we use practice as the foundation for medical knowledge and use theory to justify our findings. Practice can be seen as the first, most important step, and theory as the second, minor step used for justification. In early modern medicine, all knowledge is founded on theory, and practice follows as a second step once the knowledge has been produced and confirmed. Rationalism thus overpowers empiricism in importance during the early modern period.


Since theory was used as the building blocks for creating medical knowledge, rationalism was valued over empiricism. In “The Way to Health”, Tryon includes the relation between keeping good health and the four humours present in every human. In modern day medicine, we have abandoned the paradigm of the four humours and have taken on empirically satisfying theories, such as the human cell theory. Our current knowledge is created from empirical observations, whereas medical knowledge of the 17th century is transitioning into empiricism, but still holds onto traditional rational knowledge.


One must take into account that this book is written for the peasant population (based on the empirical observations). This presence of folk wisdom in medicine resembles our modern society. In today’s society, many common remedies exist among the general population. Though these remedies may not be the same as those seen in “The Way to Health”, we often are accustomed to believing certain medical knowledge based on tradition and cultural beliefs. Everyone knows that we must eat chicken noodle soup or drink tea to heal from a cold, but what proof exists that these measures taken can aid a sickness? As Tryon’s book demonstrates, folk wisdom commonly influences the medical knowledge being produced and disseminated in an era. Though it may have altered from the 17th century to the 21st century (due to the major change in the medical paradigm), we continue to see the existence of folk wisdom influencing medical knowledge.


In modern medicine, we are still limited by the measures we can take in order to evaluate a person’s health. As Cook describes and Tryon demonstrates, urine, as well as blood, are used as ways to evaluate and predict the condition of a person’s body. The methods of evaluation have changed since modern medicine has access to better resources, such as advanced technology, DNA blood testing, etc., but the concept of evaluating what leaves or enters a person’s body remains a common source for creating medical knowledge across both periods.


 “The Way to Health” allows modern society to evaluate possible similarities and differences that exist between the two different medical periods.


Work Cited


Harold J. Cook,  “Medicine,” in Katherine Park and Loraine Daston (eds.) The

Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 407-434.

Tryon, Thomas. The Way to Health. 2nd ed., Warwick-Lane, H.C. for R. Baldwin,



I really liked your description of the book, because it felt as if I have seen and touched it myself. You gave a good mental image of what it looks like. Also, it is quite interesting how the balance between the four humors were mentioned in the book. Your depiction of the shift from rationalism to empiricism using the evidences from the text are accurate and well-done. Overall, it was a great analysis.