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The key to answering the question – “what evidence is there that the health conditions of ordinary people did not change much during the Scientific Revolution?” – lies in a passage early in Roy Porter’s history of medicine, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind:
“In the short run, the anatomically-based scientific medicine which emerged from the Renaissance universities and the Scientific Revolution contributed more to knowledge than to health. . . (T)he true pharmacological revolution began with the introduction of sulfa drugs and antibiotics in the twentieth century, and surgical success was limited before the introduction of anesthetics and antiseptic operating-room conditions in the mid nineteenth century.”
Porter’s study traces the efforts of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus (1493-1541), who contended that the key to producing radical improvements in medicine could only occur with the development of the pharmacological compounds needed to counter illness. Paracelsus’s commitment to finding solutions through the study of nature, rather than seeking knowledge through the writings of those who came before him, led him to concentrate on the remedies available to cure sickness. Such remedies would not come along until the 20th Century, long after his death, but Porter’s interest in Paracelsus lies in the latter’s recognition that the causes of disease demanded recourse to pharmaceutical solutions that existed in nature – a particularly prescient perspective. While Paracelsus would die centuries before his beliefs could bear fruit, Porter’s history goes on to note the continued divergence between knowledge and remedy.
The issue of acquiring knowledge with respect to evidence on whether the conditions of ordinary people changed during the Scientific Revolution could be found in Porter’s discussion of 17th Century statistician and epidemiologist John Graunt, whose Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality represented an important contribution to medical literature by providing quantifiable analysis of mortality rates, including for infants, which enabled him to made scientifically accurate predictions of life expectancy. By reviewing available medical history, of which much existed, Graunt was able to chart improvements – or the lack thereof – in life expectancy parallel with developments in medical techniques and knowledge. Among Graunt’s findings, as described by Porter, was the fact that disease, pestilence and famines continued to preclude improvements in life expectancy. The Scientific Revolution, to return to Porter’s earlier observation, provided considerable leaps in knowledge, but practical remedies would remain undiscovered for many more years. Additionally, as Porter notes, the Scientific Revolution did not occur unobstructed; the politics of the status quo, including Church doctrine, impeded progress, especially in the early periods of the Revolution. “Medicine and religion” Porter wrote, “intersected at many points.” While this phenomenon was far more prevalent in earlier centuries, it had not entirely disappeared during the early phase of the Scientific Revolution.
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