Reed, Reforming Medicine. The physician as Christ. Line engraving after H. Goltzius.

The Physician Considered as God, plate one from Allegories of the Medical Profession (1587), Unknown Artist (Dutch, active 16th century), Line engraving after Hendrik Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617). Source: Wellcome Library, London.

Project (2019-2020)

Reforming Medicine, ca. 1500-1700

In his Religio Medici (1642), the English physician Thomas Browne, trained at the major medical faculties of the seventeenth century—Padua, Montpellier, and Leiden—famously called the popular proverb “ubi tres medici, duo athei” (where there are three doctors, there are two atheists) the “general scandal of [his] profession.” Concerns that medical knowledge and practice could lead to skepticism about unobservable causes, and worse, to materialism, heretical beliefs, and atheism, were widespread in late medieval and early modern medical and medico-religious circles, but especially during the reformations of medicine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Indeed, the character of the “atheist physician” often appeared as warning about the dangerous effects of improper, disordered, and heretical medical education and work.

Browne’s rebuke raises a series of important research questions for early modern historians: What new possibilities for conceiving the nature, purpose, and practice of medicine emerged during and after the Christian reformations? My project investigates the relationships between projects and practices of reformation broadly construed and the developments in academic medicine (both theoretical and practical) and non-university medical training, accreditation, and practice between 1500 and 1700, through two thematic lenses. First, I take a capacious view of “reformation” to analyze how attempts to recover and restore ancient medicine were connected with reforming Christianity. Second, I consider how the boundaries between theology, natural philosophy, and medicine were negotiated around the knowledge of the human being as a union of soul and body, and trace some of the legacies of earlier debates about the relationship between philosophy and medicine in confessionally specific interpretations of Aristotle, Galen, Avicenna, and other medical authorities.