History of medicine (and Harvey’s principles for lecturing)

One of the best courses I listened to in 2018 was on the history of Western scientific medicine.

It contained a lot of lessons for practically-oriented intellectual movements.

Some themes I took from the book, in no particular order.

  1. Authority vs experimentation. Galen was a great doctor and experimentalist, but he and his followers built a personality cult around him. Progress came when irreverent people like Vesalius questioned revealed wisdom and tried to see for themselves.
  2. Lineages. Knowledge often progressed through multi-generational lineages. The university of Padua sustained impressive generations: from Caius to Vesalius and Harvey (all preceded by Copernicus).
  3. Learning by doing. The French school revolutionized medical education in the 19th century by shifting focus to direct demonstrations and learning by doing, as opposed to reading textbooks.
  4. Cultural and institutional brakes on progress. There was demand for dissections from medieval doctors, but church-imposed regulations prohibited them.
  5. Value of personal ties. Dissecting corpses was permitted largely because the pope responsible for this bule attended
  6. Information flows and counterfactuals. Leonardo found out that appendicitis leads to death but he didn’t bother to share his findings with others. Result: decades of delay in medical progress.
  7. Cultural flavors. I’m not sure how seriously to take this point, but I loved elaborations on how culture influenced medical approaches and discoveries. The “sensualist” French discovered and took to the stethoscope, the orderly Germans revolutionized surgical hygiene through systematic procedures and checklists.

The greatest deficiency of the course was the (admitted and legitimate) ommission of Muslim scientific medicine. Currently, there’s a big gap in my model of intellectual progress in medicine (Galen, something something, Avicenna, Leonardo, Vesalius).

Vaguely related: William Harvey seems to have been a great systematizer. Wikipedia lists his principles for public speaking:

At the beginning of his lectures, Harvey laid down the canons for his guidance:

  1. “To show as much as may be at a glance, the whole belly for instance, and afterwards to subdivide the parts according to their positions and relations.
  2. To point out what is peculiar to the actual body which is being dissected.
  3. To supply only by speech what cannot be shown on your own credit and by authority.
  4. To cut up as much as may be in the sight of the audience.
  5. To enforce the right opinion by remarks drawn far and near, and to illustrate man by the structure of animals.
  6. Not to praise or dispraise other anatomists, for all did well, and there was some excuse even for those who are in error.
  7. Not to dispute with others, or attempt to confute them, except by the most obvious retort.
  8. To state things briefly and plainly, yet not letting anything pass unmentioned which can be seen.
  9. Not to speak of anything which can be as well explained without the body or can be read at home.
  10. Not to enter into too much detail, or in too minute dissection, for the time does not permit.
  11. To serve three courses according to the glass [i.e. allot a definite time to each part of the body]. In the first day’s lectures the abdomen, nasty yet recompensed by its infinite variety. In the second the parlour, [i.e. the thorax?]. In the third day’s lecture the divine banquet of the brain.”


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