Category Archives: History of medicine

If you’re going to lecture others on the need to learn history then it pays to get your own history right.

The HIST_SCI HULK has been slumbering very peaceably somewhere deep in the catacombs under Mathematicus Mountain the home of the Renaissance Mathematicus’ humble cave. However, the pungent smell of #histsci bullshit drifted downwards on a draft disturbing his slumbers and now he is raging through the underground chambers demanding access to the blog.

In the Guardian, journalist Van Badham has written an article criticising Senator Simon Birmingham’s vetoing of research grants approved by the Australian Research Council, with the following title.

Simon Birmingham is the one who needs a history lesson in western civilisation

Her criticism centres round what she sees as Birmingham’s lack of historical awareness, banging on about the fact that the vetoes are mostly of humanities research and that if Birmingham had more knowledge of history then he would be more aware of the origins of the western civilisation he wishes to defend. For itself Van Badham’s criticism is valid and would be OK if her own knowledge of the history of science weren’t so abysmal, as illustrated by the following paragraph.

It’s a tender solidarity exhibited here by a man of science to the humanities community. The habit of scientists to offend the “common sense” standards of their times with research has historically proven quite dangerous.Rhazes, the medical pioneer of ninth century Baghdad, was beaten blind with his own compendium by a priest. The humanist Michael Servetus, a 16th century physician credited with discovering pulmonary circulation, was tortured and burned along with his books on the shores of Lake Geneva at the personal behest of John Calvin. In the 17th century, Galileo spent his last years under house arrest, forced by the church to recant the heretical belief that the earth orbited the sun.

We can of course assume that Badham got her history of science information from all those professional humanities scholars that she is arguing Birmingham should be supporting with research grants. However, if we did so, we would be very wrong. Her source is a pop article published in Wired in 2012 by a woefully ignorant staff journalist, Olivia Solon, under the title:

Galileo to Turing: The Historical Persecution of Scientists

There are several more horrors in the original article but I shall only deal here with the three examples that Badham paraphrased. The original Rhazes paragraph reads as follows:

Rhazes (865-925)
Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī or Rhazes was a medical pioneer from Baghdad who lived between 860 and 932 AD. He was responsible for introducing western teachings, rational thought and the works of Hippocrates and Galen to the Arabic world. One of his books, Continens Liber, was a compendium of everything known about medicine. The book made him famous, but offended a Muslim priest who ordered the doctor to be beaten over the head with his own manuscript, which caused him to go blind, preventing him from future practice.


Portrait of Rhazes (al-Razi) (AD 865 – 925), physician and alchemist who lived in Baghdad Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons

I love the arrant chauvinism of He was responsible for introducing western teachings, rational thought and the works of Hippocrates and Galen to the Arabic world.It smacks of the old style: the Islamic world only conserved the Greek heritage until Renaissance Europe could inherit it and develop it further. The Persian physician Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (854–925) or al-Rāzī for short was one of the two most significant Islamic medical authorities, who made important original contributions to medical knowledge. He was also, like many other Islamic scholars, a polymath who wrote on medicine, alchemy, philosophy, logic, astronomy and grammar. Historians of medicine are convinced that al-Rāzī suffered from cataracts at the end of a long, very productive and very successful life, which caused him to go blind. There are various anecdotes about the cause of his blindness. One of them attributed to Ibn Jujil (c.944–c.994), an Adulusian Arab physician, says that it was caused by a blow to his head by his patron Mansur ibn Ishaq, the governor of his birthplace Rey and an early employer, for failing to provide proof for his alchemy theories. Note, not a Muslim priest. Another, recorded by Gregory Bar Hebraeus (1226–1286), a Syriac Christian Bishop, and Miguel Casiri (1710–1791), a Maronite scholar, was that it was caused by a diet of only beans. Somehow this differs somewhat from the film ripe fantasy account delivered up by Solon and parroted by Badham

Michael Servetus (1511-1553)
Servetus was a Spanish physician credited with discovering pulmonary circulation. He wrote a book, which outlined his discovery along with his ideas about reforming Christianity – it was deemed to be heretical. He escaped from Spain and the Catholic Inquisition but came up against the Protestant Inquisition in Switzerland, who held him in equal disregard. Under orders from John Calvin, Servetus was arrested, tortured and burned at the stake on the shores of Lake Geneva – copies of his book were accompanied for good measure.


Miguel Serveto Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve actually written a whole blog post on the Spanish physician, theologian, cartographer and Renaissance humanist Miguel Serveto (1509 or 1511–1553) under the title Not a martyr for science. Serveto was even more of a polymath than al-Rāzīand made contribution to a bewildering range of topics. His execution had absolutely nothing to do with his discovery of the pulmonary circulation but was entirely the result of his highly heterodox religious views. He did not escape from Spain but from Vienne in France, where he had been imprisoned on suspicion of heresy. Fleeing to Italy he stopped in Geneva, a strange decision as he had already had a major dispute, by exchange of letters, with Calvin on the subject of Christian doctrine. He was arrested, tried, found guilty of heresy and burnt at the stake. Interestingly not only the Catholics and Calvin were happy to see him executed but Luther and Melanchthon as well. Serveto really knew how to make enemies.

Galileo (1564-1642)
The Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei was trialled and convicted in 1633 for publishing his evidence that supported the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. His research was instantly criticized by the Catholic Church for going against the established scripture that places Earth and not the Sun at the center of the universe. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” for his heliocentric views and was required to “abjure, curse and detest” his opinions. He was sentenced to house arrest, where he remained for the rest of his life and his offending texts were banned.


Galileo Galilei. Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Marucelliana Source: Wikimedia Commons

If I were God, I would arrange it so that every time a journalist typed the name Galileo a miniature thermo-nuclear device would materialise over their workplace and upon detonating would reduce their computer to a meagre pile of radioactive dust and a small mushroom cloud.

If Galileo didn’t exist then people like Solon and Badham would have to invent him. He’s the one example that is always used when they want to prove that somebody, in particular somebody religious, tried to suppress science or a scientist. The trial in 1633 had multiple causes of which the nominal scientific one was probably the least important. It was simply the stick used to beat an uppity subject. To stretch an analogy it’s about the same as Al Capone being charged with tax evasion.

The main cause was a clash of egos: Galileo with an ego the size of the Peter’s dome, whose hubris made him blind to every day reality and Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VII, with an equally large ego and the manic paranoia of an absolutist ruler beset on all sides by real and imaginary enemies. Galileo’s hubris misled him into thinking that he, a mere mathematicus, could hoodwink an absolutist, paranoid Pope. He discovered that he couldn’t and was brought down to earth rather quickly if, for the circumstances, comparatively gently. As for Galileo “publishing his evidence that supported the Copernican theory”, his problem was that he didn’t really have any. As I have said on previous occasions, Dialogo is strong on polemic but lacking in facts. Galileo’s crowning proof, Day 4’s theory of the tides would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. As has been pointed out many times, and not just by me, in 1633 the empirical evidence still spoke clearly in favour of geocentrism and not for heliocentrism. I will add the usual caveat that this does not excuse the Church’s behaviour towards Galileo but also doesn’t let Galileo off the hook for having poked a sleeping bear with a sharp stick.

Ms Badham would have been wise if she had checked her ‘historical sources’ before using them as an example to support her attack on Simon Birmingham’s apparent lack of historical awareness.

P.S. I promise that after three negative ones in a row the next post will be a positive one.









Filed under History of Astronomy, History of medicine, Myths of Science, Uncategorized

Renaissance mathematics and medicine

Anyone who read my last blog post might have noticed that the Renaissance mathematici Georg Tannstetter and Philipp Apian were both noted mathematicians and practicing physicians. In our day and age if someone was both a practicing doctor of medicine and a noted mathematician they would be viewed as something quite extraordinary but here we have not just one but two. In fact in the Renaissance the combination was quite common. Jakob Milich, who studied under Tannstetter in Vienna, was called to Wittenberg by Philipp Melanchthon in 1524, as professor for mathematics, where he taught both Erasmus Reinhold and Georg Joachim Rheticus. In 1536 he became professor for anatomy in Wittenberg and was succeeded by Rheticus as professor for mathematics. Rheticus in turn would later become a practicing physician in Krakow. The man, who Rheticus called his teacher, Nicolaus Copernicus, was another mathematical physician. My local Renaissance astronomer Simon Marius was another mathematician who studied and practiced medicine. That this was not a purely Germanic phenomenon is shown by the Welsh mathematicus and physician Robert Recorde and most notably by the Italian Gerolamo Cardano, who is credited with having written the first modern maths book, his Ars magna, and who was one of the most renowned physicians in Europe in his day.

These are only a few well-known examples but in fact it was very common for Renaissance mathematician to also be practicing physicians, so what was the connecting factor between these, for us, very distinct fields of study? There are in two interrelated factors that have to be taken into consideration, the first of which is astrology. The connection between medicine and astrology has a long history.

Greek legend says that Babylonian astrology was introduced into Greece by the Babylonian priest Berossus, who settled on the island of Kos in the third century BCE. Kos was the home of the Hippocratic School of medicine and astrology soon became an element in the Hippocratic Corpus. At the same time the same association between astrology and medicine came into Greek culture from Egypt in the form of the Greek-Egyptian god Hermes Trismegistos. Both the Egyptians and Babylonians had theories of lucky/unlucky, propitious/propitious days and these were integrated into the mix in the Greek lunar calendar. The Greeks developed the theory of the zodiac man, assigning the signs of the zodiac to the various part of the body. If a given part of the body was afflicted it would then be treated with the plants and minerals associated with its zodiac sign. The central role of astrology in medicine can be found in both the Hippocratic Corpus, in Airs, Waters, Placesit is stated that “astronomy is of the greatest assistance to medicine”and in Ptolemaeus’ Tetrabibloswe read, “The nature of the planets produce the forms and causes of the symptoms, since of the most important parts of man, Saturn is lord of the right ear, the spleen, the bladder, phlegm and the bones; Jupiter of touch, the lungs, the arteries and the seed; Mars of the left ear, the kidneys, the veins and the genitals; the sun of sight, the brain, the heart, the sinews and all on the right side; Venus of smell, the liver and muscles; Mercury of speech and thought, and the tongue, the bile and the buttocks; and the Moon of taste and of drinking, the mouth, the belly, the womb and all on the left side.” The connection between astrology was firmly established in Greek antiquity and was known as iatromathematica, health mathematics.

The theory of astrological medicine disappeared in Europe along with the rest of early science in the Early Medieval Period but was revived in the eighth century in the Islamic Empire when they took over the accumulated Greek Knowledge. The basic principles were fully accepted by the Islamic scholars and propagated down the centuries. When the translators moved into Spain and Sicily in the twelfth century they translated the Greek astrology and astrological medicine into Latin from Arabic along with rest of the Greek and Arabic sciences.

During the High Middle Ages, Christian scholars carried on an energetic debate about the legitimacy, or lack of it, of astrology. This debate centred on judicial astrology, this included natal astrology, mundane astrology, horary astrology, and electional astrology but excluded so called natural astrology, which included astrometeorology and astro-medicine both of which were regarded as scientific. To quote David Lindberg, “…no reputable physician of the later Middle Ages would have imagined that medicine could be successfully practiced without it.”


Woodcut of the Homo Signorum, or Zodiac Man, from a 1580 almanac. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Beginning in the fifteenth century during the humanist renaissance astrological medicine became the mainstream school medicine. It was believed that the cause, course and cure of an illness could be determined astrologically. In the humanist universities of Northern Italy and Poland dedicated chairs of mathematics were established, for the first time, which were actually chairs for astrology with the principle function of teaching astrology to medical students. Germany’s first dedicated chair for mathematics was founded at the University of Ingolstadt in about 1470 for the same reason.


Zodiac Man The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry c. 1412 Source: Wikimedia Commons

With the advent of moving type printing another role for mathematicians was producing astronomical/astrological calendars incorporating the phases of the moon, eclipses and other astronomical and astrological information needed by physicians to determine the correct days to administer blood lettings, purges and cuppings. These calendars were printed both as single sheet wall calendars and book form pocket calendars.


Renaissance Wall Calendar, 1544 Source: Ptak Science Books

These calendars were a major source of income for printer/publishers and for the mathematici who compiled them. Before he printed his legendary Bible, Johannes Guttenberg printed a wall calendar. Many civil authorities appointed an official calendar writer for their city or district; Johannes Schöner was official calendar writer for Nürnberg, Simon Marius for the court in Ansbach, Peter Apian for the city of Ingolstadt and Johannes Kepler for the city of Graz. Official calendar writers were still being employed in the eighteenth century. As I explained in an earlier post the pocket calendars led to the invention of the pocket diary.

Marius: [Alter und Newer Schreibcalender], [1602]  (Scan Nr. 150)

Simon Marius: Alter und Newer SchreibCalender auf das Jahr 1603 Title page Source: Deutsches Museum

With mainstream medicine based on astrology it was a short step for mathematicians to become physicians. Here we also meet the second factor. As a discipline, mathematics had a very low status in the Early Modern Period; in general mathematicians were regarded as craftsmen rather than academics. Those who worked in universities were at the very bottom of the academic hierarchy. At the medieval university it was only possible for graduates to advance to a doctorate in three disciplines, law, theology and medicine. It was not possible to do a doctorate in mathematics. With the dominance of iatromathematica, which depended on astrology, for which one in turn needed astronomy, for which one needed mathematics it was logical for mathematicians who wished to take a university doctorate, in order to gain a higher social status, to do so in medicine. The result of this is a fascinating period in European history from about 1400 to middle of the seventeenth century, where many of the leading mathematicians were also professional physicians. When astrology lost its status as a science this period came to an end.





Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of medicine, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

The problem with Jonathan Jones and #histSTM

It cannot be said that I am a fan of Jonathan Jones The Guardian’s wanna be art critic but although I find most of his attempts at art criticism questionable at best, as a historian of science I am normal content to simply ignore him. However when he strays into the area of #histSTM I occasionally feel the desire to give him a good kicking if only a metaphorical one. In recent times he has twice committed the sin of publicly displaying his ignorance of #histSTM thereby provoking this post. In both cases Leonard da Vinci plays a central role in his transgressions, so I feel the need to make a general comment first. Many people are fascinated by Leonardo and some of them feel the need to express that fascination in public. These can be roughly divided into two categories, the first are experts who have seriously studied Leonardo and whose utterances are based on knowledge and informed analysis, examples of this first group are Matin Kemp the art historian and Monica Azzolini the Renaissance historian. The second category could be grouped together under the title Leonardo groupies and their utterances are mostly distinguished by lack of knowledge and often mind boggling stupidity. Jonathan Jones is definitely a Leonardo groupie.

Jones’ first foray into the world of #histSTM on 28 January with a piece entitled, The charisma droids: today’s robots and the artists who foresaw them, which is a review of the new major robot exhibition at the Science Museum. What he has to say about the exhibition doesn’t really interest me here but in the middle of his article we stumble across the following paragraph:

So it is oddly inevitable that one of the first recorded inventors of robots was Leonardo da Vinci, consummate artist and pioneering engineer [my emphasis]. Leonardo apparently made, or at least designed, a robot knight to amuse the court of Milan. It worked with pulleys and was capable of simple movements. Documents of this invention are frustratingly sparse, but there is a reliable eyewitness account of another of Leonardo’s automata. In 1515 he delighted Francois I, king of France, with a robot lion that walked forward towards the monarch, then released a bunch of lilies, the royal flower, from a panel that opened in its back.

Now I have no doubts that amongst his many other accomplishments Leonardo turned his amazingly fertile thoughts to the subject of automata, after all he, like his fellow Renaissance engineers, was a fan of Hero of Alexandria who wrote extensively about automata and also constructed them. Here we have the crux of the problem. Leonardo was not “one of the first recorded inventors of robots”. In fact by the time Leonardo came on the scene automata as a topic of discussion, speculation, legend and myth had already enjoyed a couple of thousand years of history. If Jones had taken the trouble to read Ellie Truitt’s (@MedievalRobots) excellent Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature and Art (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) he would have known just how wrong his claim was. However Jones is one of those who wish to perpetuate the myth that Leonardo is the source of everything. Actually one doesn’t even need to read Ms. Truitt’s wonderful tome, you can listen to her sketching the early history of automata on the first episode of Adam Rutherford’s documentary The Rise of the Robots on BBC Radio 4, also inspired by the Science Museums exhibition. The whole series is well worth a listen.

On 6 February Jones took his Leonardo fantasies to new heights in a piece, entitled Did the Mona Lisa have syphilis? Yes, seriously that is the title of his article. Retro-diagnosis in historical studies is a best a dodgy business and should, I think, be avoided. We have whole libraries of literature diagnosing Joan of Arc’s voices, Van Gough’s mental disorders and the causes of death of numerous historical figures. There are whole lists of figures from the history of science, including such notables as Newton and Einstein, who are considered by some, usually self declared, experts to have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. All of these theories are at best half way founded speculations and all too oft wild ones. So why does Jonathan Jones think that the Mona Lisa had syphilis? He reveals his evidence already in the sub-title to his piece:

Lisa del Giocondo, the model for Leonardo’s painting, was recorded buying snail water – then considered a cur for the STD: It could be the secret to a painting haunted by the spectre of death.

That’s it folks don’t buy any snail water or Jonathan Jones will think that you have syphilis.

Let’s look at the detail of Jones’ amazingly revelatory discovery:

Yet, as it happens, a handful of documents have survived that give glimpses of Del Giocondo’s life. For instance, she is recorded in the ledger of a Florentine convent as buying snail water (acqua di chiocciole) from its apothecary.

Snail water? I remember finding it comical when I first read this. Beyond that, I accepted a bland suggestion that it was used as a cosmetic or for indigestion. In fact, this is nonsense. The main use of snail water in pre-modern medicine was, I have recently discovered, to combat sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis.

So she bought some snail water from an apothecary, she was the female head of the household and there is absolutely no evidence that she acquired the snail water for herself. This is something that Jones admits but then casually brushes aside. Can’t let ugly doubts get in the way of such a wonderful theory. More importantly is the claim that “the main use of snail water snail water in pre-modern medicine was […] to combat sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis” actually correct? Those in the know disagree. I reproduce for your entertainment the following exchange concerning the subject from Twitter.

Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner)

Hello, you may have read that the Mona Lisa had syphilis. This thread points out that is probably bollocks

 Dubious theory – the key evidence is her buying “snail water”, but this was used as a remedy for rashes, earaches, wounds, bad eyes, etc…

Greg Jenner added,

Seen this ‪@DrAlun ‪@DrJaninaRamirez ? What say you? I’ve seen snail water used in so many different Early Modern remedies

Alun Withey (@DrAlun)

I think it’s an ENORMOUS leap to that conclusion. Most commonly I’ve seen it for eye complaints.

Greg Jenner

‪@DrAlun @DrJaninaRamirez yeah, as I thought – and syphilis expert @monaob1 agrees

 Alun Withey

‪@greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez @monaob1 So, the burning question then, did the real Mona Lisa have sore eyes? It’s a game-changer!

Mona O’Brian (@monaob1)

‪@DrAlun @greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez interested to hear the art historical interpretation on the ‘unhealthy’ eyes comment!

Alun Withey

‪@monaob1 @greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez doesn’t JJ say in the article there’s a shadow around her eyes? Mystery solved. *mic drop*

Greg Jenner

‪@DrAlun @monaob1 @DrJaninaRamirez speaking as a man who recently had to buy eye moisturiser, eyes get tired with age? No disease needed

 Mona O’Brian

@greg_jenner Agreed! Also against the pinning of the disease on the New World, considering debates about the disease’s origin are ongoing

Jen Roberts (@jshermanroberts)

‪@greg_jenner I just wrote a blog post about snail water for @historecipes –common household cure for phlegmy complaints like consumption.

Tim Kimber (@Tim_Kimber)

‪@greg_jenner Doesn’t the definite article imply the painting, rather than the person? So they’re saying the painting had syphilis… right?

Minister for Moths (@GrahamMoonieD)

‪@greg_jenner but useless against enigmatic smiles

Interestingly around the same time an advert was doing the rounds on the Internet concerning the use of snail slime as a skin beauty treatment. You can read Jen Roberts highly informative blog post on the history of snail water on The Recipes Project, which includes a closing paragraph on modern snail facials!




Filed under History of medicine, History of Technology, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

A breath of fresh air

I’m supposed to be preparing a lecture on the eighteenth-century pneumatic chemists and I noticed this morning that today is the birthday of Stephen Hales who was responsible for a small invention that made pneumatic chemistry possible, so I decided to write a post about him.

Stephen Hales, aged 82, by J.McArdell after T. Hudson Source: Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Hales, aged 82, by J.McArdell after T. Hudson
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hales, who is largely unknown today, except by experts, was regarded in the eighteenth century as one of the most important English natural historians with an international reputation amongst both natural historians and chemists. Born on the 17th September 1677 the tenth child and sixth son of Thomas Hales, heir to the Baronetcy of Beakesbourne and Brymore. As a younger son he was destined for the clergy and duly ordained in 1703 after graduating BA in 1700 at Corpus Christi College Cambridge. He obtained a fellowship in the same year and qualified MA in 1704. He remained in Cambridge until 1708 devoting his time to the study of the sciences mostly in tandem with William Stukeley, who would later become Newton’s physician. The two of them, being Cambridge men, studied Newton’s physics and astronomy as well as John Ray’s natural history.

Family connections found a curacy for Hales, which was the start of his long and successful church career, the high point of which was being appointed private chaplain to Princess Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales and mother of George III in 1751. He was awarded a Doctor of Divinity by the University of Oxford in 1733 and is said to have turned down the offer of a canonry at Windsor from George II. Princess Augusta held him in such esteem that she had a monument erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey after his death in 1761, at the ripe old age of 83.

Stephen Hales monument Westminster Abbey Copyright: Westminster Abby

Stephen Hales monument Westminster Abbey
Copyright: Westminster Abby

However as stated above Hales was not only a successful pastor but also a very successful and important amateur natural historian making him an excellent example of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglican clergymen who devoted themselves to the study of the sciences making substantial advances to many fields. This historical phenomenon, of course, makes a mockery of the claims of the Gnu Atheists that religion and science are incompatible and that belief in God somehow hinders scientific thought.

Hales who became a member of the Royal Society in 1718 devoted his scientific studies to the circulatory systems of plants and animals. The results of his experimental studies on plants where published in his Vegetable Staticks. Hales determined the direction and force of sap flow in plants by inserting glass tubes into the stump of a vine with the branches cut off. He also inserted glass tubes containing water into the root systems of plants to determine the water absorption rate. Hales’ greatest achievement in his plant studies was to measure the transpiration rate. Through a series of complex and ingenious experiments he was able to determine how much water a plant perspired during its growing season and to demonstrate that this transpiration helped to draw water up through the roots.

Hales carries out similar experiments over many years on the circulatory systems of animals, which he published in his Haemastaticks in 1733. He later published both books together as his Statical Essays. Using the same method of inserting glass tubes into arteries and veins of various animals, Hales made the first ever blood pressure measurements. He then went on to measure cardiac output and compare pulse rates and blood pressure. These experiments were conducted on live animals without the benefits of sedation, which led his friend and neighbour, Alexander Pope, a dog lover, to condemn him for his cruelty to animals.

During his plant experiments Hales noted that air was expelled by his plants along with the water and he set out to devise methods to collect and measure the quantities of air thus produced. This is where Hales becomes interesting for the pneumatic chemists, who succeeded him in the eighteenth century and thus for my planned lecture. Hales devised a series of apparatuses to collect the air, which culminated in his invention of the pneumatic trough. A device that could be set to the general purpose of collecting gases separated from the generating apparatus.

Pneumatic Tr From Vegetable Staticks, opposite page 262 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pneumatic Tr From Vegetable Staticks, opposite page 262
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The pneumatic trough would go on to be further developed by Henry Cavendish, William Brownrigg, Joseph Priestly and Antoine Lavoisier all of whom would use it in the discovery of various gasses, most notably hydrogen and oxygen; discoveries that would lead to the discovery of the composition of water and the beginnings of modern molecular chemistry. All of these researchers acknowledged their debt to Hales and his invention.

Throughout the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century all of the great natural historians who laid the foundations of modern biology also acknowledge their debt to Hales for his pioneering work in both animal and plant physiology. It is only in the late nineteenth century that he began to be forgotten and to slide into obscurity; to become only the subject of study of specialist historians of science and no longer to be counted amongst the great natural historians.

As we have seen Hales was not just a brilliant theorist but also a very practical investigator designing and building complex experimental apparatus with which to conduct his researches. He applied this practical bent to the solution of an important social problem. His researches into air were a continuation of work begun in the seventeenth century by people such as Boyle and Hooke into air and its properties. One of the central concerns of these researches was the investigation of bad or foul airs, like those found in swamps, mines and enclosed spaces, such as prisons or ships. In fact Brownrigg’s development of Hales’ pneumatic trough was dedicated to this research. Hales was one of several researchers to invent a ventilator driven by bellows worked by hand and in larger versions by windmills to provide fresh air to enclosed spaces. Hales’ ventilators were a success and were widely employed in ships, prisons and mines.

Image of a Ventilation Bellows devised by Stephen Hales Source: Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Image of a Ventilation Bellows devised by Stephen Hales
Source: Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Hales is a classic example of those small scientific researchers, who upon investigation turn out not to be so small after all, who get lost and forgotten in our hagiographical presentation of the so-called giants of science. Next time you are at your doctors having your blood pressure checked spare a thought for the Reverend Stephen Hales the very first person to measure blood pressure.


Filed under History of Chemistry, History of medicine

Having lots of letters after your name doesn’t protect you from spouting rubbish

The eloquently excellent Elegant Fowl (aka Pete Langman @elegantfowl) just drew my attention to a piece of high-grade seventeenth-century history of science rubbish on the website of my favourite newspaper The Guardian. In the books section a certain Ian Mortimer has an article entitled The 10 greatest changes of the past 1,000 years. I must to my shame admit that I’d never heard of Ian Mortimer and had no idea who he is. However I quick trip to Wikipedia informed that I have to do with Dr Ian James Forrester Mortimer (BA, PhD, DLitt, Exeter MA, UCL) and author of an impressive list of books and that the article on the Guardian website is a promotion exercise for his latest tome Centuries of Change. Apparent collecting lots of letter after your name and being a hyper prolific scribbler doesn’t prevent you from spouting rubbish when it comes writing about the history of science. Shall we take a peek at what the highly eminent Mr Mortimer has to say about the seventeenth-century that attracted the attention of the Elegant Fowl and have now provoked the ire of the Renaissance Mathematicus.

17th century: The scientific revolution

One thing that few people fully appreciate about the witchcraft craze that swept Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries is that it was not just a superstition. If someone you did not like died, and you were accused of their murder by witchcraft, it would have been of no use claiming that witchcraft does not exist, or that you did not believe in it. Witchcraft was recognised as existing in law – and to a greater or lesser extent, so were many superstitions. The 17th century saw many of these replaced by scientific theories. The old idea that the sun revolved around the Earth was finally disproved by Galileo. People facing life-threatening illnesses, who in 1600 had simply prayed to God for health, now chose to see a doctor. But the most important thing is that there was a widespread confidence in science. Only a handful of people could possibly have understood books such as Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, when it was published in 1687. But by 1700 people had a confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world, even if they themselves did not, and that it was unnecessary to resort to superstitions to explain seemingly mysterious things.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’m a gradualist and don’t actually believe in the scientific revolution but for the purposes of this post we will just assume that there was a scientific revolution and that it did take place in the seventeenth century, although most of those who do believe in it think it started in the middle of the sixteenth-century.

I find it mildly bizarre to devote nearly half of this paragraph to a rather primitive description of the witchcraft craze and to suggest that the scientific revolution did away with belief in witchcraft, given that several prominent propagators of the new science wrote extensively defending the existence of witches. I recommend Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus triumphatus (1681) and Philosophical Considerations Touching the Being of Witches and Witchcraft (1666). Apart from witchcraft I can’t think of any superstition that was replaced by a scientific theory in the seventeenth-century. However it is the next brief sentence that cries out for my attention.

The old idea that the sun revolved around the Earth was finally disproved by Galileo.

By a strange coincidence I spent yesterday evening listening to a lecture by one of Germany’s leading historians of astronomy, Dr Jürgen Hamel (who has written almost as many books as Ian Mortimer) on why it was perfectly reasonable to reject the heliocentric theory of Copernicus in the first hundred years or more after it was published. He of course also explained that Galileo did not succeed in either disproving geocentricity or proving heliocentricity. Now anybody who has regularly visited this blog will know that I have already written quite a lot on this topic and I don’t intend to repeat myself here but I recommend my on going series on the transition to heliocentricity (the next instalment is in the pipeline) in particular the post on the Sidereus Nuncius and the one on the Phases of Venus. Put very, very simply for those who have not been listening: GALILEO DID NOT DISPROVE THE OLD IDEA THAT THE SUN REVOLVED AROUND THE EARTH. I apologise for shouting but sometimes I just can’t help myself.

Quite frankly I find the next sentence totally mindboggling:

People facing life-threatening illnesses, who in 1600 had simply prayed to God for health, now chose to see a doctor.

Even more baffling, it appears that Ian Mortimer has written prize-winning essay defending this thesis, “The Triumph of the Doctors” was awarded the 2004 Alexander Prize by the Royal Historical Society. In this essay he demonstrated that ill and injured people close to death shifted their hopes of physical salvation from an exclusively religious source of healing power (God, or Christ) to a predominantly human one (physicians and surgeons) over the period 1615–70, and argued that this shift of outlook was among the most profound changes western society has ever experienced. (Wikipedia) I haven’t read this masterpiece but colour me extremely sceptical.

We close out with a generalisation that simply doesn’t hold water:

[…] by 1700 people had a confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world, even if they themselves did not, and that it was unnecessary to resort to superstitions to explain seemingly mysterious things.

They did? I really don’t think so. By 1700 hundred the number of people who had “confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world” was with certainty so minimal that one would have a great deal of difficulty expressing it as a percentage.

Mortimer’s handful of sentences on the 17th century and the scientific revolution has to be amongst the worst paragraphs on the evolution of science in this period that I have ever read.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of medicine, History of science, Myths of Science

The horror, the horror!

For those readers who might have wondered what The Renaissance Mathematicus looks and sounds like, you need wonder no more. There is now a video on Youtube in which I stumble and stutter my way through a very impromptu, not quite fifteen minute, lecture on the relationship between astronomy, astrology and medicine in the Early Modern Period. During which I indulge in a lot of arm waving and from time to time scratch my fleas. This video was filmed in the kitchen of the Remeis Observatory in Bamberg during a coffee break at the Astronomy in Franconia Conference last Monday, complete with the sounds of somebody loading the dishwasher.

The cameraman, who also puts some questions during this solo performance, was Chris Graney who requested my golden words for his students back in Louisville, the poor sods.

1 Comment

Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of medicine

Giants’ Shoulders #70 celebrates a birthday.

Hans Sloane is one of those figures in the history of science, who deserves to be much better known than he is. Although Sloane Square in London is named after him, giving name to one of the horrors of modern English culture, the Sloane Ranger, most people would be hard put to it to say who he was.

Sir Hans Sloane Gottfried Kneller

Sir Hans Sloane
Gottfried Kneller

An Irish physician who lived through the second half of the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth, he was a central figure in the English scientific community that included Hooke, Wren, Halley, Flamsteed and Newton as well as many other less well known personages. He was secretary of the Royal Society when Newton became its president in 1704 and very much shared the power with the great Sir Isaac in that august body until he resigned in 1713, after a series of power struggles with other council members over the preceding years. He got his revenge however when he was elected president following Newton’s death in 1727, a post he retained until 1741.

He served three English monarchs, Anne, George I and George II, as royal physician and was appointed baronet for his services in 1716. He was also elected president of the Royal College of Physicians in 1719 a post he would hold for sixteen years. In 1722 he also became physician-general to the army.

From the modern point of view Sloan’s most important activity was that of collector. Scientific curiosity cabinets were very much en vogue in the Early Modern Period and Sloane collected scientific curiosities on an almost unbelievable scale. When he died, in 1753, he donated his monster collection to the nation on the condition that the government build a museum to house it. The government agreed and so the venerable British Museum was born. Later Sloane’s natural history collection was given a home of its own leading to the establishment of the Natural History Museum.

Like many of his contemporaries, and in particular the collectors, Sloane was a prolific letter writer and, as is befitting in this digital age, his correspondence has its own blog. To celebrate Sir Hans’ 354th birthday, on 16 April, Giants’ Shoulders #70, the history of science, medicine and technology blog carnival  will take place at The Sloane Letters Blog hosted by our favourite blogging beagle, Lisa Smith (@historybeagle). Submission for this special birthday edition of Giants’ Shoulders should be made either direct to the host or to me here at RM or to either of us on Twitter at the latest by 15 April.


Filed under Giants' Shoulders, History of medicine, History of science