Now and Then: How Does the Human Body Work?

by Hippocampus on October 26, 2016 - 4:21pm

The learning process changes greatly over time and I was able to witness part of this change through a field trip to the Oslo Library that archives medical document as old as clay tablets from 2700 years ago. The book I had the chance to work with is the 12th edition, published in 1792, of an anatomical manual entitled The Anatomy of the Human Body by W. Cheselden, a surgeon of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, London. It is a book the size of a small agenda and of a few hundreds of page. The book smells like all the old books, dusty and moldy, but the pages are well preserved, neat and clear for reading although the binding was falling apart. From its well preserved and unannotated aspects, it was probably mostly consulted than really used in daily life for practical purposes. Because of the small format and the simple binding of the book, the book would have only caused a moderate sum, so it was probably mostly possessed by curious bright minds (medical students or middle class people) with interests in medical knowledge and not much money.

The main part of the book describes the different systems of the human body, with numerous detailed and labelled pictures or metal carvings (for this was the way highly precise pictures were produced). The book ends with some accounts of surgical procedures and treatments of specific cases. The book is entirely written in modern English in Times New Roman and was easily understandable by modern readers except for the “s,” printed as “f.” The last owner of the book is Prof. C. P. Martin, probably the Anatomy Professor at McGill University from 1936 to 1957 (Martin).
The scientific revolution caused a dramatic paradigm shift regarding especially the medical knowledge. In the beginning of the Early Modern Period, the humoral theory prevailed among physicians, who were the university graduated philosophers, and barber-surgeons, who were the low class profession doing hands-on treatments on the human body (Waurechen). However, “by the end of the seventeenth century… the science of physic had been fundamentally altered” (Cook 407). Since my assigned book dates from 1792, its content should be relatively similar to or be the basis of the actual medical knowledge because this book is after the paradigm shift occurring during the Early Modern Period and therefore, from a period of the same paradigm as now. Indeed, not only the words (modern English) but also the medical terminologies (such as membrane adiposa-fat, auricles, ventricule, etc) are the same as nowadays (Cheselden 198, 321). The content of the book shows clearly the modern paradigm: the new theoria and practica, based on experimentation and real observations. The anatomical structural knowledge learned through dissections is used to explain the diverse cases and their treatments at the end of the book. Unlike the old theoria and practica, where practices derived from the theories found in old texts from the Antiquity, the modern medical knowledge is produced using empiricism or the scientific method (Cooks 424, 433). Consequently, these definition changes modified the goal of medicine: from “to preserve health and restore it if lost” to “fight against the disease” (Cook 434). In other words, modern medicine looks at the causes of disease to understand the human body as opposite to establishing the perfect model for a healthy person to assess the treatments.
Not only does by 1792, medical knowledge became “right” (for us, according to the modern paradigm we live in), many stigmas surrounding the medical practices have been lifted. People understood the importance of dissections in knowing about the human body and have gotten passed the religious taboos regarding cutting open a human body. Surgeons were then (and now) considered a prestigious profession as they can be part of Royal Societies, like the author of the book The Anatomy of the Human Body.
The significance of this trip and the analysis of the book The Anatomy of the Human Body are to see real evidence of and to reflect on the meaning of the scientific revolution that occurred during the Early Modern Period. Since knowledge is produced differently, it is also taught differently.
Work Cited
Cheselden, W. The Anatomy of the Human Body, 12th edition, Forty Cooper Plates, 1792. 
Cook, Harold J. “Medicine.” The Cambridge History of Science, edited by Katherine Park and Daston Lorraine, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 407-434.
Martin, John. “Cyril Percy Marty – Biography.” n.p. 5 Apr. 2008, 
Waurechen, Sarah. Early Modern Knowledge. Marianopolis College, Westmount, QC. 
October 12, 2016. Lecture.


It's very interesting to see how medical knowledge in the late 18th century, which is over 200 years ago, can still be so similar to what we consider medical knowledge today, in the way that surgeons are considered to be very important people in the medical field, as well as the way medicine now looks to diagnose illness more than trying to prevent it.