Medical Writing Essay - Critical Essays

Medical Writing


Medical Writing

The period from the fifteenth century through the eighteenth century witnessed important developments in the field of medicine. During this time medicine established itself as a profession, innovative procedures and techniques were introduced, and standard practices for physicians were instituted. As much of the population of Europe was illiterate, and personal accounts and other records are scarce, much of what is known about the evolution of medical knowledge in the period has been gleaned from surviving medical texts. These works, with their descriptions of surgical procedures, case studies, and elaborations of theories of disease and the working of the human body, disclose at the same time changes in philosophy and cosmology from the medieval period to the Renaissance and beyond, into the Age of Enlightenment.

For centuries European medical texts were written exclusively in Latin or French, the languages of the educated classes. Beginning in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century texts began appearing in English and other vernacular languages, making them accessible to a larger portion of the population. Initially such works were simply translations of earlier scientific and philosophical volumes; in time, however, as the medical profession began to establish itself, these publications included accounts of new treatments and new conceptions of disease. By the late seventeenth century physicians had, by means of such texts, access to the latest scientific thinking from across Europe. In 1660 English physicians formed the Royal Society of London, and their publication, Philosophical Transactions, provided a forum for discussion, debate, and the dissemination of scholarly research and thought. Colonial American physicians, including Cotton Mather, gained much of their medical knowledge from this journal. For his part, Mather published his own findings—including the results of a successful 1721 experiment in smallpox inoculation—in British medical journals. While knowledge spread among scientists and physicians, and medicine established itself as a discipline, the vast majority of the population of Europe and America remained unaffected by such developments. The poor relied on herbal remedies, knowledge of which had been passed on for generations. These mixtures could be made at home, purchased at markets or obtained from lay practitioners. In time recipes for such cures began appearing in published texts.

One subject that figured prominently in medical writings—and concerned all members of society—was the treatment of venereal disease. Medical publications offered treatments, possible cures, and methods of protection. At the same time they provided arenas for discussing changing images of the body and sexuality. Significantly, erotic works—known as “anatomies”—were written to resemble medical literature and thus escape the eye of the censors. Both legitimate medical texts and erotica reflected changing social mores and new concepts of sex and sexually transmitted diseases.

Present-day scholars are divided on the question of who constituted the readership of medical texts in the early modern period. While all concur that, given meager incomes and low literacy levels among the general populace, the audience for these works could not have been as large as their authors seem to claim, they do not all agree that only the elite and well-educated members of society had access to them. Some critics, including C. H. Talbert, have argued that women comprised a portion of the readership of medical volumes. Researchers have also examined medical texts for what they tell about changing social beliefs and worldviews of the writers. For instance, scholars note that the wealth of knowledge that Cotton Mather's writings demonstrate reflects not only the then-current understanding of medicine in the American colonies, but the emerging views of the Enlightenment.

Representative Works

Gilbertus Anglicus
Compendium Medicinae (nonfiction) 1240

Philip Barrough
Methode of Phisicke (nonfiction) 1596

Robert Boyle
Skeptical Chymist (nonfiction) 1661

Oswald Cockayne [editor and translator]
Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England (nonfiction) 1864–65

René Descartes
De Homine (nonfiction) 1662

Wilhelm Fabry
De combustionibus (nonfiction) 1607

John Gregory
Lectures on the Duties and Qualifications of a Physician (lectures) 1772
Observations on the Duties of a Physician (nonfiction) 1789

William Harvey
Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis (nonfiction) 1628

Bernard Mandeville
A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions (nonfiction) 1711

Cotton Mather
The Christian Philosopher (nonfiction) 1721
The Angel of Bethesda (nonfiction) 1722

François Mauriceau
Des Maladies des Femmes Grosses (nonfiction) 1668

Thomas Moulton
This Is the Myrour or Glasse of Helthe (nonfiction) 1531

Royal Society of London
Philosophical Transactions (journal) 1660–

Benjamin Rush
Observations on the Duties of a Physician, and the Methods of Improving Medicine (treatise) 1789

Criticism: Colonial America

Richard Harrison Shryock (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: “Benjamin Rush from the Perspective of the Twentieth Century,” in Medicine in America: Historical Essays, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966, pp. 233-51.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1946, Shryock points out the lack of empirical data in Benjamin Rush's work, but praises him for his philosophical interests.]

It has recently been observed that “One often hears and sees Rush's name mentioned, but in a few tiresomely repeated connections; as a man and as a writer he is little known.”1 This is doubtless true so far as the general public is concerned: in contrast to his friends John Adams and Jefferson, Rush has...

(The entire section is 5721 words.)

Richard Harrison Shryock (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: “Early American Immunology: As Formulated by the Reverend Cotton Mather of Boston, 1725,” in Medicine in America: Historical Essays, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966, pp. 252-58.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1954, Shryock argues the importance of Cotton Mather's medical writing as the sole example of germ theory in eighteenth-century American writings.]

Little has been written about medicine as it existed in the English-American Colonies prior to about 1750. Yet European medicine was practiced in these Colonies for well over a century before that time. The reasons for this neglect of early Colonial medicine are obvious enough....

(The entire section is 1864 words.)

Gordon W. Jones (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Introduction,” in The Angel of Bethesda by Cotton Mather, Barre, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society and Barre Publishers, 1972, pp. xi-xxx.

[In the following excerpt, Jones discusses the significance of Cotton Mather's medical writings and traces the influences on his thinking.]


Cotton Mather (1663-1728) represents a landmark in the development of the American mind, the first long step in the series from Benjamin Franklin (whose boyhood studies he encouraged) and Thomas Jefferson to Robert McCormick and Henry Ford. His background was essence of English Puritan. One grandfather was the Reverend John Cotton (1584-1652) of the...

(The entire section is 8318 words.)

Criticism: Enlightenment

SOURCE: “Honeyed Words: Bernard Mandeville and Medical Discourse,” in Medicine in the Enlightenment, edited by Roy Porter, Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1995, pp. 223-54.

[In the following essay, McKee discusses the language, discourse, and medical knowledge in Bernard Mandeville's 1711 work A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions.]

In 1711 Bernard Mandeville published the first edition of one of his best known works, A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions. The book aims to teach patients suffering from hypochondria how to question medical rhetoric and it is woven together from a combination of a wide variety of disparate...

(The entire section is 13216 words.)

Criticism: Medieval Writing

SOURCE: “Introduction,” in Healing and Society in Medieval England: A Middle English Translation of the Pharmaceutical Writings of Gilbertus Anglicus, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, pp. xv-lxxiii.

[In the following excerpt, Getz provides background information about the nature and importance of Gilbertus Anglicus's collection of pharmaceutical recipes.]

The Middle English Gilbertus Anglicus consists for the most part of medicinal recipes, grouped according to the diseases for which they were useful. These recipes in turn were arranged roughly from the head downward, with the text divided into chapters that are introduced by simple guides for...

(The entire section is 15131 words.)

Criticism: Sexuality

Winfried Schleiner (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Renaissance Moralizing about Syphilis and Prevention,” in Medical Ethics in the Renaissance, Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1995, pp. 162-202.

[In the following excerpt, Schleiner considers the moral connotations that physicians of the Renaissance associated with veneral disease.]

While the problems of removing male and female seed have received little attention by modern historians of medicine or of anthropology, the history of venereal disease—more specifically, the morbus Gallicus or syphilis—has been the focus of considerable interest. Modern discussions include the following questions: Was the morbus Gallicus a new...

(The entire section is 16905 words.)

Anne Van Arsdall (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Medicines of Medieval and Renaissance Europe as a Source of Medicines for Today,” in Prospecting for Drugs in Ancient and Medieval European Texts: A Scientific Approach, edited by Bart K. Holland, Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996, pp. 19-37.

[In the essay below, Van Arsdall provides an overview of medical knowledge from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, arguing that the historical texts represent the sum of what was known about disease and the body at the time.]


This chapter outlines the practice of medicine and the use of medicinal remedies from the early Middle Ages through the Renaissance in...

(The entire section is 9484 words.)

Rose A. Zimbardo (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Satiric Representation of Venereal Disease: The Restoration Versus the Eighteenth-Century Model,” in The Secret Malady: Venereal Disease in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France, edited by Linda E. Merians, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996, pp. 183-95.

[In the essay below, Zimbardo considers the cultural views on venereal disease as represented in the popular fiction of the Restoration Period and the eighteenth century, noting its transition from public and comical to private and immoral.]

The Restoration period in England (1660-1700) is what the philosopher Hans Blumenberg calls a “zero point,” a moment in cultural history when an...

(The entire section is 5694 words.)

Julie Peakman (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Medicine, the Body and the Botanical Metaphor in Erotica,” in From Physico-Theology to Bio-Technology: Essays in the Social and Cultural History of Biosciences: A Festshrift for Mikuláš Teich, edited by Kurt Bayertz and Roy Porter, Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1998, pp. 197-223.

[In the essay below, Peakman examines eighteenth-century erotica as a means by which the public grappled with emerging scientific ideas about the body and sex.]

Arbor Vitae, or the Tree of Life, is a succulent Plant; consisting of one straight Stem, on the Top of which is a Pistillum, or Apex. … Its Fruits, contrary to most others, grow...

(The entire section is 8341 words.)

Criticism: Vernacular

SOURCE: “Mirrors of Health and Treasures of Poor Men: The Uses of the Vernacular Medical Literature of Tudor England,” in Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, edited by Charles Webster, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 237-61.

[In the following essay, Slack examines the nature and influence of vernacular medical literature in England from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, arguing that it was the social elite and not the poor who would have read them.]

It was the ‘compassion that I have of the poor people’ which moved the author of the most popular medical work of the sixteenth century to put pen to paper, so that...

(The entire section is 10276 words.)

Further Reading


Fleming, P. R. “Clinical Discipline Emerges: 1680-1760.” In A Short History of Cardiology, pp. 1-15. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997.

Examines several eighteenth-century European medical texts in order to trace the developments in knowledge of the circulatory system.

Getz, Faye. “The Medieval English Medical Text.” Medicine in the English Middle Ages, pp. 35-64. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Surveys medieval English medical discourse, roughly dividing the field into those works that largely derived from Greek and Arabic sources and those that emanated from Roman and Anglo-Saxon...

(The entire section is 334 words.)