The Renaissance and the Rise of Scientific Medicine
Prior to the Renaissance, much of medicine was based in home remedies, belief systems and myth. Many of the doctors from the medieval and Renaissance period were charlatans selling "snake oil" to unwitting customers, alchemists plying their trade in mixtures and magic and locals with a rudimentary ability to patch and heal. While there were some effective folk cures discovered over centuries of human development, empirical study based on the scientific method had yet to be performed.
Of particular interest is the plague doctor, pictured to the left. They would be hired by municipalities to both care for those inflicted with the plague and to record their deaths for public records. Some began to don a protective suit made up of a heavy fabric overcoat alongside a mask with glass eye openings and a nose shaped like a beak to hold scented substances to hold off the stench and disease of the dead and dying. According to Doctor's Review, these plague doctors were "often little more than paid hacks and second-rate physicians hired by desperate municipalities." (
Some of the most prominent forms of treatment were leeching and bloodlettng. Bloodletting was a popular treatment for a whole array of ailments. Many diseases were thought to be caused by an excess of blood in the body and bloodletting was seen as the obvious cure. When a large quantity of blood was required, the appropriate vein was cut. If only a small amount was needed, a leech would be used instead.
One of the biggest reasons as to why medicine took so long to break through was that people could not always study the human body as they could now. Dissection was illegal. It is believed that in the early 1500s, in order to create the detailed drawings found in his notebook, Leonardo Da Vinci hired grave robbers and eventually a hospital director in order to get him cadavers in order to study.
Above: A selection of Da Vinci's anatomical drawings from approx. 1507-08.
In 1543, a young Belgian professor at the University of Padua named Andreas Vesalius produced a series of texts entitled, De Humani Corporis Fabric, or On the Fabric of the Human Body. Based on empirical study through the dissection of human cadavers, and containing detailed, accurate diagrams, these texts contained the first largely accurate study of the human body. During the Renaissance, surgery also moved into the field of medicine. Previously, surgery was primarily practiced by barbers (because, hey, they had all of the best cutting tools anyway) and soldiers on the battlefield. Source:
The picture to the left is a woodcut from Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabric showing an operating table and the required surgical instruments for use as as a 16th century medical practiioner. Below is another woodcut from the book showing some of the interrelationships between tissue and bones in the human body.