Medical Knowledge in the 18th Century

by TheIntriguedPelican on October 26, 2016 - 4:04pm

Empirical Observations:

At the Osler Library, our group was handed a big red book which was about 1 by 1.5 feet long and weighed around 5kg. It has a hard red cover with fancy golden double borders, however no writing was found on the front and back of the book. The title of the book “Osteographia or the anatomy of bones”, was written on the first page in the inside of the book. Underneath the title were the authors name and the year it was published in: William Cheselden, 1733. The book was written in English, however some letters were slightly different such as when an “s” was supposed to be in the word, it would be replaced with an “f” unless it was the last letter. In the book we found no traces of marginalia (hand written notes in the margins) however we did find some water marks, creases, smalls rips, rough edges and overall, it looked like it was used a lot over the past centuries. The pages in the book were yellow and quite thick with a sort of brittle texture. The edges were golden and the writing on the pages was very big and looked to be a ‘Serif’ print.



The book “Osteographia or the anatomy of bones” is universally recognized as one of the most important and beautiful books made at that time. Cheselden wrote this book because he wanted to provide the most accurate illustrations of skeletons to date and also to make it as aesthetically pleasing as he could.

When looking at the book we can quickly notice the author’s aesthetic motives. The book gives us information mostly by illustrations of different skeletons in different poses. Images are shown on almost every page. This is probably because there was a very big change in the way knowledge was found in physic. “all true physical knowledge was built on sense experience. Physic therefore could account only for things ‘which are purely material in the human body, with mechanical and physical experiments’”(Cook 432). This way of acquiring knowledge was adopted in the early 18th century, exactly when they book was made. This is why the book was full of images Cheselden had copied through observation, from real life skeletal figures. It was very useful for scientists at the time because with the use of books like these, which provide knowledge through sense experience, could further make deeper hypothesis’ and carry out experiments based off of this provided empirical knowledge. Instead of with first cause, which was how it was done in the centuries before. This book could still be used as a basis for modern medical knowledge since there has not been precisely any huge paradigm shift since the 18th century. The ways of knowing through mechanical and physical experiments (observation and experiencing things) is still found to be the best way of discovering knowledge to this day.

Overall this book had no big differences in the way knowledge was provided compared to what a modern biology book would look like. This is because it was written at the start of scientific revolution. However if this book had been written a century earlier, before the scientific revolution The book would have presented knowledge in an entirely different manner.


Works Cited:

Cheselden, William. Osteographia or the Anatomy of the Bones. Ed. Vandergucht and Shinevoet. London: Royal Academy of Surgery at Paris, 1773. Book.


Cook, Harold J. Medicine. Ed. Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston. The Cambridge History of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Article.


Accuracy and Elegance in Cheselden’s Osteographia (1733). The Public Domain Review,