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Dissection and Vivisection in the European Renaissance & Hygiene in the Early Medical Tradition.

Roger French, Dissection and Vivisection in the European Renaissance

Aldershot and Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999.43 pls. + ix + 289 pp. $86.95. ISBN: 1-85928-361-6.

Heikki Mikkeli, Hygiene in the Early Medical Tradition

(Humaniora, 305.) Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1999. 9 figs. + 195 pp. np. ISBN: 951-41-0869-8.

These two books, on different but related topics, are instructive and valuable. Professor French wants to know why a vast body of knowledge on anatomical dissection, built up from the days of Galen (second century), but especially from the middle ages (twelfth century) to the end of the Renaissance (beginning of the seventeenth century), had so little to do with what we take to be important, viz., use in medicine and surgery [emphasis added]. As the author puts it: "This book asks the Why? rather than the How? of the growth of dissection and vivisection" (1). He wants to examine the thesis that the anatomists were building up anatomical knowledge for some purposes other than direct medical or surgical use [emphasis added]. "The purposes and the methods used to achieve them are the topic of what follows" (2).

Both "dissect" and "anatomize" are derived from Latin and Greek verbs, respectively, meaning "to cut." This definition seems to have been first used by John of Alexandria (first half of the seventh century), an early commentator on Galen (20). At least many later writers on anatomy cite him by name and seem to attribute to him this definition.

The author presents, in chronological order, examples of various writers who employed anatomical dissection and vivisection, and for what purposes. Early on, the author states that "direct medical or surgical use" as a reason for doing anatomical dissection well explains how we see the matter, but this has little to do with the way the medieval or Renaissance doctor saw it. This is an important caveat, because it suggests that, in order to understand why medieval or Renaissance doctors did dissections, in each instance we have to know what the doctor in question took to be important purposes for anatomical dissection. Our own presuppositions have nothing to do with it.

There are at least twenty different authors or subjects that French uses to develop his argument. Summarizing, these are the main uses employed by various anatomists from the late thirteenth to the mid-seventeenth century: for forensic examinations to determine the causes of death; for using anatomy for teaching purposes; for anatomical knowledge as an academic discipline taught in the schools; for a "philosophical-pious" justification; for use of anatomy to help Vesalius confirm or refute Galen; for a training for vivisections; for religious reasons; for Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood; for Descartes' use of anatomy to establish a new mechanical philosophy, and for at least two writers (Massa and Riolan) who tried to establish anatomy as an independent separate discipline. On the whole, I would say the author has established his program. In spite of minor quibbles, the main argument is not affected.

As for the second item, Professor Mikkeli says: "This study ... is not a social history, but instead an intellectual history of hygiene, or dietetics, as it was more commonly called in early modern Europe" (8). The work consists of two parts (three chapters each): first, the main task is to examine how classical dietetics was rediscovered in the Renaissance and how that was reflected in dietetical treatises (11). The second deals with hygiene or dietetics as a part of medicine in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (12). The work ends with a conclusion that nicely sums up the volume (175-77).

In the third book of his Ars medica, Galen treated six factors that had an effect on human health (16, 54). Later tradition called them the "six non-naturals," viz., air, food and drink, motion and rest, sleep and waking, repletion and evacuation, and the accidents of the soul (i.e., strong emotions and passions). For Galen, the proper regulation of these factors was assumed to ensure a healthy state of the body. This Galenic formulation was influential in many medieval and Renaissance medical writers, as late as the early eighteenth century, even when authors were profoundly influenced by various new ideas in physics, mathematics and physiology.

An important breakthrough in academic medicine occurred in the late eighteenth century because of the formulation of a new theory of disease, viz., the germ theory. When it was discovered that the cause of disease was often a bacterium, disease was no longer seen as a dysfunction between the individual and his constitution and the environment, but as an external agent carried through the environment and transmitted from individual to individual and thereby dispersed throughout the population (157). A consequence of the new germ theory and other discoveries was a switch from the ancient idea that hygiene or dietetics was concerned with the individual to a concern for the health of a population. As the author puts it: "In the ancient world the human constitution had been highly individual and thus the regimens . . . to be followed were always written for some particular person, never for a group or a class of people. In the previous chapter, the idea of common hygienic rules was introduced in the late eighteen th century and rapidly gained acceptance at the turn of the nineteenth century. The other important change in the late eighteenth-century hygienic literature was the new emphasis placed on the environment and its impact on the individual" (166-67). On the whole this is an excellent volume. It is crisply written and carefully documented.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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