Indiana University Bloomington

Anatomia Animata: Anatomy and Medicine in William Harvey's Century


In the seventeenth century, medicine and science took a decidedly mechanistic turn as they both came to reject Aristotelian explanations in favor of mechanical ones. Vaguely understood souls and faculties were no longer accepted as viable explanations, and instead, natural phenomena were interpreted almost entirely through matter in motion and atomic principles. The Lilly Library's collection includes some of the most significant works of mechanistic medicine from the seventeenth century.

René Descartes. L'Homme de René Descartes. Et un traité de la formation du foetus du mesme autheur ... Paris: Chez Charles Angot, 1664.

One of René Descartes' most significant scholarly contributions was in the field of physiology. He was one of the first to think of man's body — from the movements of muscles to the action of the brain — as a machine governed by mechanistic principles

L'Homme was originally written in French and intended to be an appendix to Descartes' Discours de la méthode, published in 1637. However, in 1633 Descartes chose not to publish the work as its mechanistic view of man could have been condemned as heretical by the Catholic Church, much as Galileo's views had recently been officially condemned in 1633.

L'Homme was, nevertheless, first published posthumously in 1662 in a Latin translation by Florentinus Schuyl (1619–1669). The French edition contains Descartes' writings on the formation of the fetus, his attempt to describe reproduction in a mechanistic fashion. It is also filled with an extensive commentary by Louis de la Forge (1632–1666), a friend and follower of Descartes who practiced both medicine and philosophy. La Forge redrew many of the original illustrations by Schuyl from the Latin editions.

Benedetto Castelli. Della misura dell'acque correnti di D. Benedetto Castelli ... Bologna: Per gli HH. del Dozza, 1660.

Della misura dell'acque correnti (On the Measurement of Running Waters) is considered as the beginning of modern hydraulics. This particular book by Benedetto Castelli was owned by his pupil Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (1608–1679) as can be discerned by his signature on the title page. Moreover, Castelli was a close personal friend of Galileo Galilei. As Stillman Drake notes, "Castelli's importance to science lay not only in his extension and dissemination of Galileo's work and methods, but also in his long and faithful service to Galileo during the two periods of crisis with the Inquisition."

Castelli was born in 1578 in Brescia, Italy and eventually moved to Padua to study under Galileo. Upon Galileo's recommendation, Castelli became Professor of Mathematics at the University of Pisa in 1613. While he was still at Pisa he took an interest in the study of water in motion, and as early as 1626 he sent two treatises on the motion of rivers to Florence for Galileo's suggestions. Castelli is also an important figure in the history of science because of his work on illumination (he independently formulated the photometric law), vision, after–images, and diaphragms in telescopes. He was also a pioneer in the study of the differential absorption of heat by different colors.

Giovanni Alfonso Borelli. De Motu Animalium ... Rome: Ex Typographia Angeli Bernabò, 1680–1681.

One of the most influential treatises of seventeenth–century anatomy, this two–volume text was written during the year prior to Borelli's death and was published posthumously. It is one of the most important works to establish the mathematical and mechanical study of muscles as a science. The first volume is concerned with the external motions produced by the muscles, and the second deals with the internal motions of the muscles themselves as well as such topics as circulation and respiration.

Little is known about Giovanni Borelli save that he was born in Naples, Italy, and that he was a precocious student of mathematics. It is unknown if he ever studied medicine formally, but we do know that he studied mathematics with Benedetto Castelli (1577–1644) in Rome.

During the seventeenth century, traditional ideas about the human body and its governance by various souls and vague powers began to give way to mechanistic explanations. Scientists and physicians who adopted this latter view and applied mechanical principles to living things have been commonly referred to as "iatrophysicists." Despite Borelli's commitment to iatrophysics and mechanical principles, he believed that all of the mechanical movements in the body were ultimately governed by a soul.

Robert Boyle. Medicina Hydrostatica: or, Hydrostaticks Applyed to the Materia Medica ... London: Printed for Samuel Smith, 1690.

Robert Boyle (1627–1691), chemist, inventor, natural philosopher, physicist, and mechanist was also a student of medicine. He retained an interest in medicine all throughout his career, but particularly in his later years when he published several treatises devoted to what he called the medical sciences. These included his Memoirs for the Natural History of Human Blood (1684) and his Medicina Hydrostatica (1690). This latter work was one of the last that Boyle published during his lifetime. In it he argued that by weighing bodies in water and comparing their weight in air, one could deduce from the proportion of weight to water the specific gravity of bodies. Thence one could determine if a given material was a counterfeit or the real thing.

Nicolaus Steno. Observationes Anatomicae Quibus Varia Oris, Oculorum, & Narum Vasa Describuntur ... Leiden: Apud Jacobum Chouët, 1662.

A major anatomical find of the seventeenth century. Steno showed that saliva was produced in some glands at the back of the mouth and that phlegm did not descend from the brain — thus disproving on anatomical grounds an influential view dating from antiquity.

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