What we learned about Early Modern Medicine.

by @freshprince on October 30, 2017 - 1:09pm

The 18th century, a time period viewed as the Enlightenment, was one evolution and advances in Europe. The medical field still had a strong non-scientific influence, but it can be considered as the start of the rise of scientific medicine (Rodgers, 2017). Many important books were printed and distributed, which was the start of the increasing importance of the human anatomy (Spray). A large book in the McGill Library, Demonstratio Uteri Praegnantis Mvlieris Cum Foetu Ad Partum Maturi in Tabulis Sex Ad Naturae Magnitudinem Post Dissectiones Depictis Et, depicted life-sized images of the female pregnancy. This book is an illustration of the efforts that the medical field was pursuing the knowledge of the body, pushing the evolution of medicine, but there were always difficulties that these practitioners faced with the limited technology and knowledge they had. The evolution of this field was slowed by the diversity and contradictions by all the people who practiced it (Spray).


In these large images of the pregnant female body, 6 pictures and many pages of analysis depict the anatomy and the science that was understood about childbirth at that time. A lot was misunderstood or not yet discovered about the medical field, doctors did not actually know solutions to diseases and other medical problems even though they claimed to (Spray). It would have been easier to identify what early modern doctors knew about childbirth if the book was written in English instead of Latin and German.  The only things that were easy to identity in the book were the visuals, which were pictures of 3 different stages of child birth. One drawing appears to be when the baby’s head is facing away from the vagina, another one shows the baby facing towards the vagina, which seems to be a later stage than the previous image and the final picture of the stomach after the mother has given birth. The other images were different drawings of a pregnant body and uterus. It seems the doctors did not know what a zygote looked like in its younger stages or aren’t aware that there is still a baby in the mothers’ stomach before the bump on the mothers’ stomach is noticeable. This leads me to believe that the knowledge on the body is still very limited at the time, which is understandable since the only way to see what is going on underneath the skin was to kill someone or find a corpse. Finding cadavres wasn’t a simple task however, it not only took a criminal or a prostitute, but sometimes a criminal act in the name of science to further their understanding of the human body (McGill Librarian, 2017). Body snatching was not uncommon, medical practitioners frequently did this in order to further study the human anatomy. It was during this time period that the anatomy of the human body became increasingly important (Spray). Surgeons and pharmacists, also known as apothecaries, are starting to get a higher status and the anatomy is slowly becoming more relevant to science (Spray).  


This 18th century book had very precise images, which are impressively similar when to the present day technologically drawn images. These images were apparently printed using copper etchings, which was a very expensive way of manufacturing an image (McGill Librarian, 2017). This suggests that this book was not for the general public, but probably accessible to students in medical school, higher class nobility and surgeons (McGill Librarian, 2017). The book was too big to be brought around so it was a reference point for surgeons since the life sized images helped them see or imagine a more precise image on what it looked like inside their patient. Physicians, who were the other medical practitioners, based their solutions on logic rather than anatomical and physiological knowledge (Spray). This book would have been of no use to them since the anatomy had no part in their work. Even without the same training as licensed practitioners, they were the wealthiest, paying high fees for their consultations (Spray). This slowly turned around in the 18th century when the doctors claimed physicians to lack knowledge in the field (Spray). There influence slowly diminished and their numbers became smaller as the the knowledge became more centralized on the body rather than reason (Spray). None of these practitioners however, were remotely successful in “curing” the majority of their patience, and a client’s fidelity was not a strong one since it was based on which doctor had less deaths associated with them, there was always another more knowledgeable doctor with more treatments (Spray).


In conclusion, the challenges that medical evolution faced like the accessibility of bodies and different medical practitioners who had a more traditional mindset helped shape the rise of importance of surgeons and set the stage for the next century where medical field thrived with numerous advances and inventions (Rodgers, 2017).





Spray, E.C.  “Health and Medicine in the Enlightenment”. 345-101-MQ: Early Modern Knowledge. Edited by Sarah Brand, Eastman. 2017

Jenty, Caroli Nicolai. Demonstratio Uteri Praegnantis Mvlieris Cum Foetu Ad Partum Maturi in Tabulis Sex Ad Naturae Magnitudinem Post Dissectiones Depictis Et, Ea Method oDispositis, Ut Huivs Status Gravidi Amplam Ob Ocvlos Ideam Collocent , Cum Explicatione,1761. 

Librarian. Osler Library of the History of Medicine. October 2017

Rodgers, Kara. (2017, June), “Medicine in the 18th Century”. Britannica. (Retrieved October 2017). https://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-medicine/Medicine-in-the-18th-century#toc35662


Analysis on Early Modern Medical History based on multiple articles and an 18th century book