Early Medicine

Course Material 2023/24
 A physician sitting before a table, holding a urine flask, with two women, a boy and several other figures in the room

Why did people learn about human sexuality well into the nineteenth century from a book titled Aristotle’s Masterpiece? Do we need pictures to learn what the human body looks like? How traditional is Chinese Traditional Medicine? And how should we write a medical history of worms? These are some of the questions that Paper 11 asks  

This paper considers medical knowledge in the ancient, medieval and early modern periods, including the Enlightenment, and covers a wide geographical space, focusing on a number of different societies. We examine how natural philosophers, healing women, artisans and men and women from a variety of backgrounds thought about the cosmos, the natural world, and the human body. We study what methods, media and instruments they used to study these phenomena. We also examine the institutions, practices and networks of medical knowledge production.  

We examine continuities and discontinuities in the history of medicine to learn how people over two millennia hoped to understand and transform the human and natural world. We discuss how Ancient knowledge remained a major source for European science and medicine throughout our period, and why Stephen Hawking still referred to Aristotle in his last book. We critically examine what it means to study early science and medicine from a global perspective, with examples ranging from early Ming China through Mughal India to colonial Latin America. Last, but not least, we pay special attention to the question of how historical knowledge is produced. How do historians evaluate archival and printed sources, and how can one write a history of material objects in the history of medicine, such as eighteenth-century obstetric models or exotic snakes bottled in a jar? 

This is Part II paper BBS113 of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Tripos


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Image: Painting by Gérard Thomas entitled 'A physician sitting before a table, holding a urine flask'.