The Medical Revolution

by Truffles_are_Overpriced on October 26, 2016 - 10:36am



Empirical Observations


Osteographia or the Anatomy of the Bones is easily the most compelling document we had access to at the Osler’s Medical Library. Written by her majesty Caroline of Ansbach’s private surgeon William Cheselden, the book distinguishes itself by a variety of physical characteristics. Surprisingly, weighting around five kilograms, the book only has around two-hundred-fifty pages. Measuring roughly twenty by ten inches, this two-hundred-year-old publication is undeniably among the biggest volumes available on consultation. Despite its old age, the well decorated spine and the bindings are firm and undamaged. Along with the red leather covers bordered in golden patterns that tightly compress a golden fore-edge, the book’s construction bears witness to quality craftsmanship.


Beginning with lifting the front cover, a strong smell of oak and dust emanates from the pages. The latter, although visibly subject to some discoloration, have remained clean and silky. Flipping past the preface reveals numerous images with printed serif captions and descriptions. The default English employed, despite the font, has modern syntax and is comprehensible. Upon closer inspection, watermarks can be found on the pages housing important sketches. The absence of marginalia also implies that previous owners took great care of the written work ever since it was published in 1733. However, some dark stains and accentuated discoloration where readers usually put their hands suggest the book has been used a lot, most likely by eighteenth and nineteenth century physicians.




Without consulting the year of publication, this lavishly illustrated bone dictionary resembles a lot to contemporary medical textbooks. This is understandable; being finalized in the early eighteenth century, this book was born at the beginning of the post-revolution era in medical history, and, together with modern medicine, creates a huge contrast with the physic volumes of the seventeenth century.


To begin with, the knowledge within this volume focuses on describing empirical observations rather than rational explanations for certain functions of the human body. It constitutes mainly of images – sketches of ligaments, bones and different bone-related medical condition – and descriptions of the latter. Going over the first (Sutures and Bones of the Cranium), the third (Of the Bones of the Trunk) and the seventh chapter (Of Diseased Bones), the main findings are objective descriptions and silly nomenclature. Very few passages contain knowledge spawned from presumptions, let alone any references to Hippocrates’ model of humors. Even the chapters treating illness associated to the bones emphasized on the observable, instead of selling hypothesises and deduced knowledge unsupported by empirical data. “It is not the design of this chapter to enter minutely into all the diseases of the bones mentioned by authors, but in a general manner so far only as relates to their cure, or such extraordinary diseased bones as I have made prints of in this work. (Cheselden VII)” In the evolutionary narrative provide by Harold Cook’s Medicine, Osteographia serves as an excellent visual support of the revolution between knowledge dispensed during the seventeen-hundreds and during the eighteenth-hundreds.


On the same train of thought, the origins of knowledge have also varied. This document was written by a physician specialized in surgery from the Royal Academy of Surgery at Paris. A hundred years earlier, physicians and surgeons had nothing in common. Both existed in separate fields and shared different ranks. Cook also alluded to this separation: “It seems that ordinarily on these [public dissections] a professor read and commented on an anatomical text while someone else, such as a surgeon, actually did the cutting. (Cook 414)” While physicians stuck to the Hippocratic paradigm, studying the maintenance of health while having no contact with the patients; surgeons were mostly butchers or barbers who attempted to cure diseases. (Cook 409, 418) When physicians began stepping out of beaten paths to practice private dissections, their capacity to produce knowledge began to supplant that of traditional physicians. As the century progressed, many debates erupted between medical schools while the entire community shifted towards a materialistic approach to generate knowledge, giving more credit to the work of surgeons. Osteographia or the Anatomy of the Bones is a perfect witness of that transition. As discussed earlier, the quality of the book and the status of its author both imply that its content was somewhat authoritative, all while being completely cut away from the Hippocratic paradigm, praised by classical physicians.


In the light of the foregoing, the alikeness between this book and modern medical textbooks is because both the authors and the targeted community share the same inclinations towards materialistically / empirically created knowledge, since both were written after the medical revolution of the seventeenth century. For the same reasons, the contrast between modern medicine and seventeenth century medicine is because we lean towards different means of knowledge production.


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.


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