Many of those who believe in and propagate the so-called scientific revolution see it as being bracketed by the life and work of two of the reputed giants of astronomy Nicolas Copernicus and Isaac Newton, the left hand bracket, on the arrow of time, being Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus from 1543 and the right hand one Newton’s Principia Mathematica from 1687. Now this popular myth of science sees the scientific revolution as being principally an astronomical one but as I have often commented, almost all of the academic disciplines went through a phase of substantial change over the 300 years between 1400 and 1700. Some apologists for a wider scientific revolution, whilst retaining an emphasis on astronomy, note that a revolution in medicine was also launched in 1543 with the publication of Vesalius’ De fabrica. Now there was indeed a medical revolution in the same period as the astronomical one encompassing such diverse figures as Paracelsus, William Harvey, Van Helmont and Thomas Sydenham and it can be seen as bracketed in the same way by the life and work of two giants of medical history this time on the left hand side by Vesalius, actually Andreas van Wesel (1514 – 1564),
and on the right hand side by Herman Boerhaave (1668 – 1738)
both of them Netherlander and both of them, by a strange coincidence, born on the 31st of December.
Through his masterwork on the science of anatomy Vesalius radically changed the study of medicine moving anatomy from an insignificant sideshow in mediaeval medicine and establishing it as the foundation of the study of medicine at the university. His work also established the legendary Paduan school of medicine that produced many leading anatomist including Realdo Colombo, Gabriele Fallopio, Bartolomeo Eustachi and of course William Harvey. Padua also contributed heavily to the establishment of modern zoology through the work of its comparative anatomist such as Fallopio’s student Hieronymus Fabricius. During the late 17th century the dominance in European medicine moved gradually from Northern Italy, other North Italian universities had excellent medical schools often run by Paduan graduates, to the Netherlands and at the latest with the appointment of Boerhaave in 1701 Leiden replaced Padua as the leading European teaching hospital. Boerhaave was a great fan of English empiricism and introduced the scientific methodology of Boyle and Newton into the study of medicine, biology and chemistry in Leiden and through the excellence of his pedagogical skills became known as the teacher of Europe. All of the best students from throughout Europe flocked to Leiden to study under Boerhaave and a list of his students reads like a who’s who of early 18th century science. One of his most notable students was Willem ‘sGravesande who wrote the first popular textbooks on Newtonian physics making it accessible to all those for whom the Principia was too difficult; although not a student Carl von Linné benefited greatly from Boerhaave’s support in his career.