16th Century Medicine
Episode #6 of the course “Brief History of Medicine”
During the beginnings of the Age of Reason, Europe began to experience some advancements in medical knowledge. Most of the medical professionals were also spiritual healers, and they based their practices on the theories of Galen. From the idea that the physical and psychological ailments people experienced were the result of fluctuations of four bodily fluids and the balance of internal “elements” and “qualities,” 16th-century medical practitioners were hesitant to challenge established ideas with new observations and research.
In order to balance the humors and bring health to afflicted body parts, the most common medical practice was bloodletting, which was performed on a specific part of the body to heal a specific ailment. Although doctors were hesitant to physically examine patients, they became experts in examining people’s bodily wastes. It was believed that a trained physician could distinguish the expulsion of vanity or the signs of a weak digestive system by examining a patient’s excrements. Physicians did not widely practice a treatment of medicines, although some chemical elixirs and ointments were applied or administered. They were often produced with dangerous materials like lead or mercury.
The most revolutionary thinker of the century in the field of surgery was Ambroise Pare, who served in numerous battles. A Frenchman, Pare observed that using a tourniquet during surgery or amputation reduced bleeding. He also promoted use of wine to sterilize equipment during surgery and prosthetics for amputees. He was also one of the first male figures to involve himself in “women’s health,” writing and sketching important gynecological texts. Pare eventually served as personal physician to four French kings.
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