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Medical Investigation in Seventeenth Century England Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar, October 14, 1967   By: (1908)

Medical Investigation in Seventeenth Century England Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar, October 14, 1967 by Lester S. (Lester Snow) King

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Medical Investigation in Seventeenth Century England

Charles W. Bodemer

Lester S. King

William Andrews Clark Memorial Library

Medical Investigation in Seventeenth Century England

Embryological Thought in Seventeenth Century England

by Charles W. Bodemer

Robert Boyle as an Amateur Physician

by Lester S. King

Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar, October 14, 1967

William Andrews Clark Memorial Library University of California, Los Angeles/1968


Although the collection of scientific literature in the Clark Library has already served as the background for a number of seminars, in the most recent of them the literature of embryology and the medical aspects of Robert Boyle's thought were subjected to a first and expert examination. Charles W. Bodemer, of the Division of Biomedical History, School of Medicine, University of Washington, evaluated the embryological ideas of that remarkable group of inquiring Englishmen, Sir Kenelm Digby, Nathaniel Highmore, William Harvey, and Sir Thomas Browne. Lester S. King, Senior Editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association , dealt with the medical side of Robert Boyle's writings, the collection of which constitutes one of the chief glories of the Clark Library. It was a happy marriage of subject matter and library's wealth, the former a noteworthy oral presentation, the latter a spectacular exhibit. As usual, and of necessity, the audience was restricted in size, far smaller in numbers than all those who are now able to enjoy the presentations in their present, printed form.


Professor of Medical History, UCLA


Embryological Thought in Seventeenth Century England


To discuss embryological thought in seventeenth century England is to discuss the main currents in embryological thought at a time when those currents were both numerous and shifting. Like every other period, the seventeenth century was one of transition. It was an era of explosive growth in scientific ideas and techniques, suffused with a creative urge engendered by new philosophical insights and the excitement of discovery. During the seventeenth century, the ideas relating to the generation and development of organisms were quite diverse, and there were seldom criteria other than enthusiasm or philosophical predilection to distinguish the fanciful from the feasible. Applying a well known phrase from another time to seventeenth century embryological theory, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness."[1]

Embryology underwent some very significant changes during the seventeenth century. At the beginning of the century, embryology was descriptive and clearly directed toward morphological goals; by the end of the century, a dynamic, more physiological attitude was apparent, and theories of development derived from an entirely different philosophic base. During this time, English investigators contributed much, some of ephemeral, some of lasting importance to the development of embryology. For this discussion, we will divide the seventeenth century into three overlapping, but generally distinct, periods; and, without pretence of presenting an exhaustive exposition, we will concentrate upon the concepts and directions of change characteristic of each period, with primary reference to those individuals who best reveal the character of seventeenth century English embryology.

An understanding of the characteristics of embryological thought at the beginning of the seventeenth century may enhance appreciation of later developments. During the latter part of the sixteenth century, the study of embryology was, for obvious reasons, most often considered within the province of anatomy and obstetrics. From Bergengario da Capri to Jean Riolan the Younger, study of the fetus was recommended as an adjunct of these subjects, and it required investigation by direct observation, as decreed by the "restorers" of anatomy... Continue reading book >>

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