Early Modern Historiography of Science and Medicine

Early Modern Historiography of Science and Medicine

John Christie


A battery of Leyden Jars, from Joseph Priestley's History of Electricity, 1767

We often assume that early modern historical consciousness concerning natural knowledge may be conveniently summarized by the critical attitudes conventionally associated with the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment—the inheritance of the past, with honorable Classical exceptions such as geometry and atomism, is to be overcome, rejected, and replaced. Yet even casual acquaintance with well-known intellectual currencies of the period (e.g., Hermeticism, philology, alchemy, and medicine) indicates an altogether more interesting and complex picture. This project initiated investigation into this little-studied field, attempting to open out this interest and complexity.

There are several kinds of starting point for such a project. Henry Aldrich, at Christ Church in Oxford in the later seventeenth century, initiated research for the recovery of ancient geometrical texts, work requiring both paleographical reconstruction and linguistic expertise, combining the skills of classical philology and modern geometry. The same period witnessed a fierce and extensive historical controversy concerning Hermeticism and alchemy, conducted by Hermann Conring and Olaf Borch. Further controversy ensued in the historiographies of chemistry written by Hermann Boerhaave and William Cullen in the period 1720–1760. Such examples exhibit the varied modes in which the past of natural knowledge became a topic of learned enquiry, whether in terms of philological argument, paleographical reconstruction, or formal historiography and the controversies which it entailed.

This research projet focused upon the analysis of two substantial works of formal historiography, each well known, and well received, in its own time. These are the Histoire de la Medicine of Daniel Le Clerc, the first part of which appeared in 1696, and Joseph Priestley’s work of 1767, the History of Electricity. Le Clerc’s work, insofar as it is at all noticed, gets characterized as "the first modern history of medicine," or the "first history of medicine deserving of the name," and it is worth pondering what is meant by such descriptions, beyond the sense that Le Clerc’s historical preoccupations and reflexes may seem akin to our own. Le Clerc was a member of a distinguished Genevan academic family, his father Stephen occupying the Chair once held by both Scaliger and Casaubon, and was moreover author of a commentary on Hippocrates. His brother Jean is very well known, a key member of the nascent Amsterdam republic of letters, indefatigable critical journalist and formidably learned theologian and religious historian. Despite this filiation, few if any living historians, of medicine or of religion, notice the fact that Daniel and Jean were brothers with a philological father, that Jean helped publish the second part of the Histoire, and used his journal to defend the Histoire when it was critically attacked in England. This analysis of the Histoire concentrated on this Genevan-Amsterdam context, and then examined the complex reception of the text in Augustan England.

Whereas Le Clerc wrote in the main about classical medicine, with a late, short addition advancing to the sixteenth century, Joseph Priestley wrote the history of a modern science, electricity, and did so in communication with contemporary electrical researchers. It appears as a work of Enlightened historiography, containing a mass of detail upon recent experimentation, theory, and notably, instrumentation. Educative, practically instructive, at times entertaining, it is easy to interpret as a successful piece of Enlightened popular education. The approach of this project, by contrast, was to embed this history of science text within Priestley’s wider historical writing, which was voluminous, and included secular, ecclesiastical, and theological history, in order to show that a rather different interpretation emerges, and one not easily or straightforwardly assimilated under the banner of secular Enlightenment.