The Progress of Medicine and Science


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    All great truths begin as blasphemies.
    George Bernard Shaw , Annajanska


    In this section we will look at how the Church has affected the development of medical and other related sciences, from ancient times to the modern day.


    Ancient Times

    Reason is God's crowning gift to man.
    Sophocles (c.496-406 BC), Antigone

    Already in ancient times medicine had started the transition from magic to science. Various types of surgery were carried out, including plastic surgery. Stone Age man had practised successful brain surgery, a fact witnessed by healed trephined skulls found in Neolithic deposits all over Europe. Ancient Egyptian papyri emphasise the importance of cleanliness and hygiene , a view shared by the Mesopotamians. They built sewers and water closets over 4,000 years ago. Greeks and Romans were even keener on public health. They built and used public lavatories, sewers, aqueducts, water cisterns, and hot and cold baths. For Greek physicians even conditions like epilepsy had rational explanations, and were not supernatural in nature1. As the Greek physician Hippocrates put it in On the Sacred Disease, a work on this condition, “Men regard its nature and cause as divine from ignorance and wonder, and this idea is maintained by their inability to understand it”.

    Egyptian dental work ca 2000 BC. Etruscans and other cultures also pioneered dental work. Such expertise was lost to Europe during the Christian period, and redeveloped in the secular age.
    For Christians, toothache was caused by tooth-demons.


    Around 400 years before Jesus, Hippocrates had founded the scientific study of medicine on the proposition that every illness has a natural cause. A Hippocratic text called An Ancient Medicine asserts that, using Hippocratic methods, causes and cures would in time be discovered for all illnesses. In On the Sacred Disease he referred to those who invoked demonic forces as charlatans guilty of ignorance, deceit and fraud. After Hippocrates progress was made quickly. Around AD 30 the Epicurean philosopher Celsus knew how to perform cataract operations and had mastered the use of ligatures. He learned about muscles and bones by dissecting animals. He understood the importance of hygiene and taught that prevention was better than cure. Another great name in ancient medicine was that of Galen of Pergamum, a Greek who was appointed as personal physician to Marcus Aurelius in AD 163. His death marked the end of centuries of medical creativity. After him Christians replaced rational medicine with their own supernatural medicine. Most of Galen's writings have been lost — probably destroyed by early Christians. Those that survived provided by far the best medical treatise available until the Middle Ages and beyond, but after the introduction of a formal system of Church censorship, his surviving works were placed on the Index.


    Dark and Middle Ages

    Faith has no merit where human reason supplies the truth.
    Pope Gregory I (c.540-604), Homilies

    The ascendancy of the Christian Church dates from around the time of the death of Galen. Having progressed so far, rational medicine was now abandoned. Medicine in the Bible is entirely supernatural. The Church developed the view that real practical medicine savoured of black magic. In any case it was wrong to try to subvert God's holy will by interfering with the natural course of events. It was God who caused illness. He was responsible for cures just as he was responsible for death. Even church law mentioned, in passing, that diseases were attributable to God, for example

    If, by divine judgment, leprosy happens to a husband or wife, and the sick one demands the carnal debt from the one who is healthy, what is demanded must be rendered in accord with the Apostle's general commandment [1 Cor. 7:3-4], which gives no exception for this case.
    (Decretals of Pope Gregory IX , Book Four, Title VIII C2)

    Illness was indisputably caused by sin. The Bible said so, and so did Church Councils. The only alternative explanations given credence were diabolical possession, witchcraft and other satanic machinations. In Christendom, from AD 300 to around 1700 all serious mental conditions were understood as symptoms of demonic possession. Since illness was thought to be caused by supernatural agents, cures had to be essentially supernatural as well. Every cure was literally miraculous, and these miracles could be effected only by prayer, penance and the assistance of saints. To claim otherwise was heretical and blasphemous.

    The Christian ideal was that women should die rather than allow themselves to be helped by a physician. Some women won their sainthood for doing no more than declining medical assistance. In the fourth century Saint Gorgonia, the daughter of two saints, was trampled by a team of mules, causing multiple broken bones and crushed internal organs. She would not see a doctor, as she thought it indecent. According to Christian sources this modesty miraculously cured her, and a second such self-healing miracle assured her sainthood. Today, Gorgonia is a patron saint for people afflicted by bodily ills. We do not know how many thousands of other women with identically modest Christian scruples died following her example and are now forgotten.

    Illness not caused by sin was necessarily caused by demons possessing the sick individual. Such illnesses could be cured only by exorcism. Here St Francis exorcises a demon from a sick woman.

    Bibliothèque nationale de France, NAF 28640, f, 84r. Bonaventure, Vie et miracles de saint François d’Assise. c. 1480
    [Note, incidentally, the grey friar habits - Fransiscans originally wore grey, not brown, habits]


    All manner of illnesses were allocated a patron saint, whose intervention was required to work the required miraculous cure. Ergotism, known as sacer ignis or holy fire, was held to be alleviated by the intervention of the Virgin Mary. Erysipelas, an infectious disease causing a reddening of the skin, was dealt with by St Anthony the Great and was thus called St Anthony's fire. St Vitus took care of chorea, which was thus known as St Vitus" dance. St Basilissa took care of chilblains; St Elmo of colic; St Roche of cholera; St Lucy, eye diseases; St Blaise, throat problems; St Apollonia, toothache; St Fiacre, haemorrhoids and venereal disease; and so on. Sleepwalking and insanity were regarded as manifestations of diabolic possession and both came under the care of St Dympna, the patron saint of the possessed. There was literally a saint for every disease.

    Other holy people could work miracles too; for example scrofula (a form of tuberculosis) could be cured by the touch of kings, by virtue of their divine appointment. It was thus known as The King's Evil. French and English kings worked miraculous cures for centuries. Even Protestants accepted it. From 1634 until the mid-eighteenth century, the Book of Common Prayer included a ritual of royal healing, and the rituals continued later still. Dr Samuel Johnson, as a child, was touched by Queen Anne as late as 1712 , and there were still people attributing the power to Queen Victoria in the nineteenth century.

    By the Middle Ages, medicine had regressed on all fronts in Christian lands. Muslims who came into contact with Christians, as Usama of Shaizar did during the Crusades, were shocked by the crudity of their medicine — and it was not only medicine, but public health too. Whereas Muslims adopted public baths (hammams) and insisted on washing before meals, Christians adopted the view that it was wrong to wash. It was flying in the face of God to presume to clean off his honest Christian filth. Christians were obliged to accept the will of God and the disease and misery that went with it. Queen Elizabeth I was famously said to have bathed twice a year, whether she needed to or not.

    The Manner of His Majesties Curing the Disease, Called The Kings-Evil. A broadside on the people afflicted with scrofula seeking cure from Charles II; with an engraving by Van Hove showing a hall, in the centre a throne and Charles II on a raised platform, the king touching a man kneeling on the steps in front of him, the throne approached from both sides by grown-ups and children; with engraved inscription, and with letterpress title and verses in two columns. (London, Newman: 1679).
    British Museum number 1849,0315.31

    The practice of medicine was monopolised by the Church, so laymen who practised it became criminals. Then the Church stopped certain clergymen practising it as well. Monastic medicine was prohibited by the Synod of Clermont in 1130. Thenceforth the practice of medicine was reserved to the secular clergy. A generation later, in 1163, the Council of Tours prohibitted all scientific inquiry to monastics, and this was interpreted as including surgery, although the Council did not explicitly use the maxim often cited, ecclesia abhorret a sanguine (the church abhors blood). All studies of physical nature, including medicine, were confirmed as inherently sinful as anyone who pursued such studies must be in league with the Devil1a.

    To the extent that it survived at all surgery was now the province of barbers, executioners, bath-keepers and proto-veterinarians. Monks now went off to the barber-surgeon for the dual purpose of having their tonsures shaved and their arms bled, but this was about the limit of surgical health care permitted by the Church. The much cited maxim ecclesia abhorret a sanguine seems to have been interpreted as "The Church abhors bloodshed" because fresh prohibitions were included in the 18th cannon of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215:

    18. Clerics to dissociate from shedding-blood
    No cleric may decree or pronounce a sentence involving the shedding of blood, or carry out a punishment involving the same, or be present when such punishment is carried out. If anyone, however, under cover of this statute, dares to inflict injury on churches or ecclesiastical persons, let him be restrained by ecclesiastical censure. A cleric may not write or dictate letters which require punishments involving the shedding of blood, in the courts of princes this responsibility should be entrusted to laymen and not to clerics. Moreover no cleric may be put in command of mercenaries or crossbowmen or suchlike men of blood; nor may a subdeacon, deacon or priest practise the art of surgery, which involves cauterizing and making incisions; nor may anyone confer a rite of blessing or consecration on a purgation by ordeal of boiling or cold water or of the red-hot iron, saving nevertheless the previously promulgated prohibitions regarding single combats and duels.

    Dissections of dead bodies were permitted in selected universities, but nothing of any value was learned because no research was carried out. The wisdom of the ancients was repeated to students parrot fashion — including their errors, such as the liver's five lobes (which do not exist in human beings). By now Galen, even though a pagan, was recognised as knowing more than any Christian, so his word like Aristotle's, was treated as indisputable. For hundreds of years, everyone saw what he or she was supposed to see, rather than what was actually there:

    During these dissections the learned professor would read aloud from Galen while a lowly surgeon opened the body. Then the professor would point toward the organ and describe the five-lobed liver and other miracles of Galenic anatomy, such was the blinding weight of tradition and authority2.

    Freelance anatomy for original research was illegal. Scientists like Leonardo da Vinci were obliged to carry on their anatomical research in secret. Leonardo's famous mirror writing was used to disguise his findings, in case the Church authorities found out about them. His notes were not published for more than 200 years after his death.

    DA Vinci's famous mirror writing



    Michelangelo was another secret anatomist. He apparently managed to work some of his anatomical discoveries into his art, including The Creation of Adam, a section of his fresco in the Sistine Chapel ceiling (c 1511).

    Anatomists have pointed out that the robes around God, Sophia and associates in this famous depiction of The Creation of Adam are a perfect representation of the human brain. On examination, details in the painting match major sulci of the cerebrum in the inner and outer surface of the brain, the brain stem, the frontal lobe, the basilar artery, the pituitary gland and the optic chiasm.


    Many Christian ideas about biology were spectacularly wrong. Leading theologians taught that women had more water in their bodies than men, so if a humid south wind blew during pregnancy, or if there were frequent rains, the baby was more likely to be born female3. The functions of the organs were also misunderstood. According to the approved view the liver secreted yellow bile; the spleen, black bile; the heart, blood; and the brain, phlegm. A Greek thinker, Alcmaeon of Crotona, had identified the brain as the central organ in the higher activities of humankind around 500 BC, but 2,000 years later Christian authorities were teaching that the brain was merely a phlegm-secreting gland.


    Sixteenth Century

    By identifying the new learning with heresy we make orthodoxy synonymous with ignorance.
    Desiderius Erasmus (c.1469-1536)

    The Reformation brought little relief to proto-scientists. Calvin burned alive scientific pioneers like Michael Servetus. Luther saw logical argument as dangerous to Christianity. He said that "To be a Christian, you must pluck out the eye of Reason" and referred to reason as "The Devil's whore". He also said

    Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things but, more frequently than not, struggles against the Divine Word....

    and again:

    Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ... know nothing but the word of God.

    Even with the whole of the schismatic Western Church opposed to scientific reasoning, the Renaissance had already triggered the revival of Greek learning, and secular ideas were having an effect. The supernatural outlook of the Church was challenged by rationalism, and advances were once more possible. As a medical historian says, comparing Eastern and Western medicine:

    When Europe became static and religious during the Middle Ages, its medicine resembled Indian medicine tremendously, except that Indian medicine was much better. When in Europe, through the Renaissance, the Greek attitude prevailed again, Europe surpassed India rapidly4.

    It is no coincidence that modern medical terminology is largely derived from Greek, for the ancient Greeks were still the best medical authorities available after more than 1,000 years of Christian hegemony. Ancient techniques could now be revived. For example the ligature, abandoned since the time of Celsus, was re-introduced by Ambrose Paré (1510-1590). But the Church did not yield ground easily. Cures were still carried out using exorcism, consecrated bells, relics, biblical readings, holy water and torture. The insane were still regarded as possessed by evil spirits. When Johann Weyer explained that mental illness was the real cause underlying the symptoms that had been attributed to witches and evil spirits, the Church denounced him, and his book was placed on the Index5. He was himself accused of witchcraft and was obliged to flee for his life. In time Weyer was vindicated: the Church belatedly updated its ideas and stopped torturing the insane.

    A sick monk calls out for the Virgin's help and is miraculously healed by milk squirted from her breast.

    Book of Hours, Use of Sarum (The 'Neville of Hornby Hours')
    British Library, Egerton 2781, f.24v, c13231-21


    Andreas Vesalius in the 16th century carried out the most extensive anatomical investigations up to his time. His hands-on direct observation was a huge break with medieval practice, and considered little short of heresy. He was attacked for his disagreement with orthodox ideas derived from Galen's studies of human anatomy. As a young man, around 1536, he had had a dispute with the theologians of Louvain over the physical location of the soul. About the same time, while in a dispute over bloodletting, Vesalius rejected the infallibility of Galen, and was described as the "Luther of the physicians" i.e. the chief-heretic of the physicians. Vesalius went on to make a number of discoveries contradicting truths that had stood for centuries,which Church-trained physicians considered infallibly true. He could not find holes in the heart claimed by to exist by all Church anatomists since Galen (but which do not in fact exist). He discovered that the lower human jaw was only one bone, not two (as claimed by Galen) and showed that humans do not have the same network of blood vessels at the base of the brain found ungulates (again contradicting Galen). Like several other reformers he owed his survival to powerful rulers who could shield him from the wrath of the Church. A letter written a few months after his death related that Vesalius had been under investigation by the Inquisition, and that he had survived only because of the intervention of King Philip II6.

    In England, dissection had remained entirely prohibited before the 16th century. Now a series of royal edicts gave specific groups of physicians and surgeons limited rights to dissect cadavers. The permission was still limited for generations to come. By the mid-18th century, the Royal College of Physicians and Company of Barber-Surgeons were the only two groups permitted to carry out dissections, and had an annual quota of ten cadavers between them.

    Elsewhere more liberal bishops licensed various medical practice from surgery to physic and midwifery, which gave them control of all these disciplines. Bloodletting was still the standard treatment for all manner of ills in the sixteenth century and would continue to be for another three centuries. Anyone who suggested that the ancient Hippocratic medical techniques might be superior risked charges of heresy. When Pierre Brissot (1478-1522) of Paris advocated Hippocratic techniques, he was considered a worse heretic than Martin Luther. Gasparo Tagliacozzi (1546-1599), Professor of Medicine at Bologna, used skin grafts for plastic surgery. He was charged with impiety, and his rhinoplasty operations were prohibited. His technique was not revived until 1822. Sometimes it is difficult to tell what advances might have been made. In Christianismi Restitutio, a work for which he was burned at the stake in 1553, Michael Servetus mentioned pulmonary circulation — realising the function of the lungs three generations before William Harvey, who is now generally credited with discovering the circulation of the blood.


    Seventeenth Century

    Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond doubt that they are right.
    Laurens van der Post (1906-1996), The Lost World of the Kalahari

    Despite the advances, the Church still held medicine back roughly to the level of a pre-literate society. Physicians, licensed by the Church authorities, continued to diagnose cases of witchcraft7. They appeared in court as prosecution witnesses, confirming that fits and other symptoms were the product of witchcraft. They claimed to have discovered devil's marks on the accused. They even gave evidence confirming that victims had vomited metal pins and other artifacts without having swallowed them. In many ways the medical practices of the indigenous people of South America were still in advance of European Christians. They carried out trepanation and amputations, excised tumours and used anaesthetics. They had developed prosthetic techniques and were using the jaws of decapitated ants as clamps in sutures.

    The Church was still clinging to the theory that illness was caused by sin or demonic agencies. Clergymen were still claiming to cure illness by magical means. In 1606 the Royal College of Physicians attempted to prevent the Rev. John Bell from purporting to cure fevers by writing charms on a piece of paper8. For the Church, Illness was still caused by sin and so was to be cured only by means approved by the Church. Other methods were not to be countenanced, whether magical or rational. The Anglican Church required its priests and churchwardens to denounce any parishioners who practised medicine without permission9. The Church was still responsible for licensing practitioners of medicine. Genuine researchers were unlikely to be licensed, although numerous questionable practitioners were, including a number of leading astrologers10.

    The four humour theory of medicine had survived from ancient times as an alternative explanation for illness. According to this theory illness was caused by an imbalance of the four humours, not a punishment for sin.

    This illustration shows a human body along with four elements and humours advocated by Galen
    Composition of bodies elements and humors.
    Bartholomaeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things. France, Le Mans, 15th Century.


    At base, illness was caused by sin, and that was all there was to it. The Flemish scientist J. B. van Helmont (1577-1644) attacked such theories, regarding miracle cures as natural magic. The Louvain medical faculty denounced him in 1623. Subsequently he was called before the Inquisition and imprisoned. To the extent that there was a genuine scientific theory at all, it was the ancient one espoused by Galen, that illness was caused by an imbalance in the four humours in the body. The Church's enemy Paracelsus developed a much better theory. He rejected Galen's theory, and speculated about seed-like entities that invaded the body. Paracelsus thought these seed-like disease-carriers entered the body through the air, or through food and drink. Different agents attacked different organs and thus caused different diseases. In essence he had correctly identified the mechanism by which many infectious illnesses are communicated. An important consequence was that Paracelsus realised that it was necessary to identify specific cures for specific diseases. Physicians had previously occupied themselves looking for a panacea — a divinely sanctioned nostrum that would cure all diseases.

    Two views of "Anatomical Eve" 16-17th Century,
    “Anatomie des Vanités” Exhibition, Brussels, Belgium, 2008.

    Medicine in transition: This anatomical figure was used for medical teaching, but the figure is the biblical protypical woman - and she still guards her modesty, even from medical students.

    The Church opposed the scientific method and was hostile to scientific discoveries by Paracelsus or anyone else, preferring its own pseudo-science. When the rings of Saturn were discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610, using his new telescope, the Church needed an explanation that fitted with Christian theology. The solution, proposed by Leo Allatius, a Vatican librarian in the seventeenth century, was that Jesus' foreskin had been resurrected along with the rest of his body, had ascended to the heavens as he had, and was now encircling the planet Saturn. His theory was set out in a treatise entitled De Praeputio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Diatriba (A Discussion of the Foreskin of Our Lord Jesus Christ).

    A recent photograph of Jesus' foreskin, according to a 17th Roman Catholic theory.

    Like many embarrassing documents, Leo Allatius's work has inexplicably disappeared from the Vatican Library. Some Catholic apologists have claimed that it never existed.
    Below is an extract from a Vatican catalogue - proof that it did exist.
    . Fabricius, Johann Albert, Bibliotheca Graeca , (Hamburg, 1728). (Vol. 14, Bk 8, p. 17, item 164.
    See also Foote, G. W.; Wheeler, J. M. (1887). Crimes of Christianity. (London: Progressive Publishing Company, 1887) p.94.


    The Church could not deny the efficacy of medicines indefinitely, and views gradually changed. Now, instead of banning medical practices, it sought to reassert its medical monopoly. The Church now became interested in drugs. New ones from South America were exploited by churchmen. For example the Jesuits exploited quinine, introduced from Peru in the 1630s. It was even known as "the Jesuit powder" because of their lucrative monopoly. Willem Piso (1611-1675) learned the use of ipecacuanha for treating amoebic dysentery from indigenous inhabitants of Brazil. Emetine, an alkaloid of ipecacuanha, is still used for the same purpose today.


    Eighteenth Century

    I was lost in a great forest at night, with only a small flickering light to guide me. A stranger came and said to me "My friend, put out your candle, so that you will find the way better". That man was a theologian.
    Denis Diderot, Pensées sur la Religion

    Until the Enlightenment the state of European medical knowledge was still no better, and arguably rather worse, than that of the ancient Greeks. Useful research was not possible while the Church exercised control. In fact the Church's ignorance often made medical problems all the greater. When plagues and other epidemics swept through Europe, devout Christians gathered in churches to pray for deliverance. In doing so they permitted the infection to spread that much faster and suffered high mortality rates as a result. Christians in some French towns confined local prostitutes to leper houses during Holy Week. We can only guess at the consequences of this particular act of piety.

    During the whole 1500 years of the Christian period, caesarian deliveries were assumed to be necessarily fatal to the mother, and for most of that period they invariably were. There are a handful of exceptions from the 1580s, and the mortality rate for mothers was down to 85% by 1865. The first modern Caesarian section in Europe was performed in 1881. Elsewhere, outside Christendom, caesarian operations had long been carried out successfully, for example in Moslem lands and Africa. Caesarian operations also seem to have been carried out successful in pre-Christian times in pagan Rome and in China.
    Detail from Birth of Caesar, Royal 16 G VII f.219, c.1400

    Gradually the hold of the Church was relaxed as new ideas filtered into Europe from the Americas and from the East. Thus for example, innoculation was learned from the Turks in the eighteenth century, having already been used to prevent smallpox for 1,000 years in the East. Priests and pilgrims had been passing through Turkey for centuries, but it was the wife a British ambassador who thought to introduce the practice of innoculation to western Europe, and had to fight both medical and religious establishments to do so11.

    Lady Montague (Mary Wortley Montague) arguably did more for medicine than the whole Christian Church over 2000 years. She had arrived at the court of the Ottoman Empire in 1717 with her husband, the British ambassador. She wrote voluminously of her travels. In one letter 11. She noted that the local practice of deliberately stimulating a mild form of smallpox through innoculation conferred immunity. She had the procedure performed on both of her own children. By the end of the eighteenth century, the English physician Edward Jenner was able to cultivate a serum in cattle, which, when used in human vaccination, eventually led to the worldwide eradication of the illness.

    Lady Mary Wortley Montague in Ottoman dress

    Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Ottoman dress

    While freethinkers like Condorcet and Voltaire advocated inoculation against smallpox, it was condemned in France by university faculties of theology.

    In England, as a result of pressure from anatomists in the rapidly growing medical schools, the Murder Act 1752 allowed the bodies of executed murderers to be dissected for anatomical research and education. Churches made no significant objection to this as it was consistent with the traditional Christian practice of posthumously punishing the bodies of those found guilty of particularly heinous crimes.

    William Hogarth, Four stages of cruelty - The reward of cruelty, 1751, last of a series of engravings.
    Tom Nero's body is dissected after he has been hanged


    Original thought and open minds also helped. Quakers, who rejected religious dogma, took to medicine in significant numbers, as it was the only learned profession open to them in England at the time. They provided many of the outstanding physicians of the age. Significant advances were made by Quakers such as John Fothergill (diphtheria and neuralgia) , John Lettsom (alcoholism) , Robert Willan (dermatology) , Thomas Hodgkin (Hodgkin's disease) and Joseph Lister (1827-1912) (antiseptic surgery).

    Christians even imagined toothache to be caused by demons
    The Tooth Worm as Hell’s Demon, southern France, 18th Century


    Infant mortality also became an issue. In France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was largely responsible for discarding the practice of swaddling babies, and of using wet nurses. French medicine was finally freed from the grip of the Church in 1794 when the Ecole de Santé was opened under the new secular government. Paris soon became the European centre of medical research, attracting men like Franz Joseph Gall, who had been obliged to leave Austria because of his lack of religious belief.


    Nineteenth Century

    No people do so much harm as those who go about doing good.
    Bishop Mandell Creighton (1843-1901), Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton

    In Europe the Galenic practice of bloodletting continued into the nineteenth century, long after the four humour theory that underlay it had been abandoned.

    Eastern medicine continued to filter into Europe during the nineteenth century. For example, hypnosis for anaesthetic purposes had long been known in the East; the technique was introduced to Britain by James Esdaile on his return from India around 1840. Indian physicians, it would turn out, had known about the link between rats and plague in the fifth century BC.

    Inconvenient discoveries could always be incorporated into the religious scheme of things in one way or another. When the existence of bacteria was established, true believers knowing for a fact that sin was the cause of illness deduced that bacteria must be the result of illness, rather than the cause of it. This is what millions of Christian Scientists believe today.

    That medical cures could be effected only by supernatural means was still accepted by the faithful. The correct procedure was to use holy relics, to undergo penance, to pray or to fast. As late as 1853 the Presbytery of Edinburgh petitioned Queen Victoria for a nationwide fast against a cholera epidemic. For centuries cleanliness had been considered a sin; it had been a Christian's duty to accept God's natural filth except in exceptional circumstances12. Ideas started to change in the wake of medical science. Now, as John Wesley put it, cleanliness was next to godliness. By Victorian times baths were acceptable for all.

    The battle was far from over. Christian leaders were still denying medical help to those who needed it. Leo XII (pope 1823-1829) forbade vaccination during a smallpox epidemic because it was "against the natural law". This undoubtedly increased mortality, particularly among the Jews that the Pope had confined to a cramped ghetto. Another favourite Christian idea was that all manner of illness was caused by sinful sex. Coitus interruptus was said to cause nervous disorders and pelvic complaints in women13. Masturbation caused all manner of problems. In addition to those mentioned already (see page 483), it caused gastric disorders, vomiting, coughing, hoarseness, palsy, lethargy, pallor, emaciation, facial cysts, amnesia, dementia, paralysis, fever, palpitations, headaches, dizziness, tremors, cramps, chest pain, abdominal pain and kidney problems14. It also caused suicides. In 1758 DR Simon Tissot of Lausanne had published Onania in which he claimed that masturbation caused the brain to desiccate so that it could be heard rattling around in the skull. The book was a best seller through Christian Europe, the last edition appearing in 1905. One can so easily imagine generations of Christian schoolmasters, shaking children's heads for evidence of sin, while taking care not to shake their own. Such teachings are the most extreme nonsense, with no scientific foundation at all. They contrast starkly not only with modern ideas but also with ancient ones. Galen had suggested that both sexual intercourse and masturbation were healthy practices, an idea adopted by the Muslim philosopher Avicenna (died 1037). Johann von Wesel, a priest who studied and advocated these ideas, was convicted of heresy at Mainz in 1479 by an Inquisitor, and died two years later under sentence of imprisonment for life.

    Gynaecology, practised only by men in the nineteenth century, suffered especially badly from the ignorance fostered by the Church. Hysteria was believed to be caused by ambulatory wombs, and could thus be suffered only by women. The only evidence for this was the word's etymology. It followed that hysteria could be cured by preventing the womb from misbehaving, for example by operating to remove the ovaries. Women's bodies were still mysterious and presented plenty of scope for original research. J. Marion Finns perfected techniques of vaginal surgery on black slave women. Surgeons like Isaac Baker Brown treated women for unlikely complaints like gyromania. Any woman displaying "a morbid desire to spin round and round, her waist encircled by a male arm" stood to be diagnosed as suffering from gyromania. Such women, who sound to modern ears to have been no more afflicted than any keen dancer, were treated surgically by cutting into the muscles of their calves and buttocks. Baker Brown also practised clitorectomies — that favourite treatment advocated by Christians opposed to the sin of female masturbation15.

    One serendipitous result of Christian prudery was the invention of the stethoscope. It was invented in France in 1816 by René Laennec at the Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital in Paris. It consisted of a wooden tube similar to the common ear trumpet, a traditional form of hearing aid. Laennec invented the stethoscope because he was uncomfortable placing his ear on women's breasts to hear their hearts.


    The Church had no problem with surgical techniques to keep women's sexuality in check, but they were vocal in opposing real medical advances, for example in anaesthesia. Anaesthesia was prohibited on the grounds that if God meant us to suffer, then we must accept the suffering, and not seek to ameliorate it. In 1847 the Edinburgh obstetrician Sir James Simpson managed to introduce the use of chloroform in Scotland, despite opposition from the Churches. A few years later, in 1853, Queen Victoria and her physician John Snow were much criticised for defying the Queen's religious advisers by using chloroform during her confinement for her seventh child, Prince Leopold. As theologians pointed out, God had expressed His view on the matter to Eve in no uncertain terms :

    Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children ... Genesis 4:16

    God wanted women to suffer in childbirth, so it was wrong for physicians to interfere. The Roman Church countenanced even more suffering than the Anglican one.

    Since disease was believed to be caused by sin, it followed that the worst afflicted were particularly sinful. Lepers were considered to be guilty of lust - one of the seven deadly sins. Of course the only cure was miraculous, so no attempt was made to find a cure until the Age of Science.

    The causative agent of leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae, was discovered by G. H. Armauer Hansen in Norway in 1873 - the first bacterium to be identified as causing disease in humans. The first effective treatment became available in the 1940s.

    Between 1587 and 1977 the Roman Church taught that a man may not marry unless he could impregnate his wife. The reason was that the prime purpose of marriage was reproduction. Thus for example a eunuch could not contract a valid marriage. Because of medieval ignorance about the mechanics of reproduction, there has never been a similar rule about women. Several times during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was ruled that a woman could marry even though her reproductive organs had been surgically removed16. Theologians apparently believed that women could conceive without wombs. Another strange idea formulated by some Christian physicians in medieval times was that women produce semen just like men. There was no evidence for this, but the theory was accepted in Church circles, even after the discovery of the ovum in 1827. Roman Catholic theologians were still writing about female semen well into the twentieth century17.

    Anatomy was still restricted by the availability of cadavers, demand for which had expanded as the the influence of the Church started to decline and scientific activities became ever more popular. A black market arose in cadavers and body parts, leading to the creation of the professions of body-snatcher and in Scotland professional murderer (In 1828, Burke and Hare murdered 16 people in order to sell their cadavers to anatomists). The resulting public outcry led to the passage of the Anatomy Act 1832, which increased the legal supply of cadavers for dissection.

    Churches had prohibited the practice of human anatomy since the Middle Age, so medical research involving dissection was either confined to animals, or illegal. Prohibitions lifted gradually from the Enlightenment, but restrictions remained well into the nineteenth century,

    The mortsafe (shown below) is a unique Scottish invention designed to prevent Resurrection men from digging up dead bodies

    Other absurdities (such as the practice of torturing lunatics and forcing them to sit in baths of iced water) died out as the Church lost its control over the care of the insane and secular physicians took over.



    Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

    The healing of the sick in His name is as much a part of the proclamation of the Kingdom as the preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
    Lambeth Conference 1978, Resolution 8

    Christians were still trying to prove the existence of the human soul into the twentieth century. Dr. Duncan MacDougall (1866 - October 1920), a Christian physician in Haverhill, Massachusetts, sought to measure the mass lost when the soul departed the body at death. He attempted to measure the mass change of six patients at the moment of death. In 1901, MacDougall weighed six patients while they were dying from tuberculosis in an old age home. The death bed was placed on an industrial sized scale which was reported to be sensitive to "two-tenths of an ounce". His first subject reportedly lost "three-fourths of an ounce". He took his results to support his hypothesis that the 'soul' had mass, and when the 'soul' departed the body, so did this mass.

    MacDougall also measured fifteen dogs in similar circumstances as a control, because according to Christian theologians, animals do not possess souls, so no change in weight would be expected. As anticipated the canine results were "uniformly negative" with no perceived change in mass. MacDougall took his results as confirmation that the 'soul' had weight, and that dogs did not have 'souls'.

    New York Times, 11 March, 1907MacDougall's results were published in April 1907 in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research and the medical journal American Medicine. Researchers soon noted that MacDougall's experimental results were flawed in several ways: limitations of his equipment, lack of sufficient control over the experimental conditions, the small sample size, and inadequate allowance for the differences in sweating between dogs and humans - so that dead humans continue to lose body water while dead dogs to not. Out of MacDougall's six human patients only one had apparently lost weight at the moment of death. Two of the patients were excluded from the results due to "technical difficulties", one patient lost weight but then put it on again, and two of the other patients registered a loss of weight at death but a few minutes later lost even more weight. MacDougall did not use the six results, just the one that supported his hypothesis - attracting widespread derision within the scientific community. No properly conducted scientific experiment has ever confirmed the weight of the soul, and theologians have now decided that souls are weightless.

    While Christian doctors concerned themselves with experiments like this, non-believers were concerning themselves with children's health. Children's welfare was a new and most un-Christian concern, which seemed to many to be contrary to the law of God. In England, Lettice Fisher, an agnostic, discovered that the death rate for illegitimate babies was much higher than that for legitimate ones. She established the National Council for the Unmarried Mother in 1918, which sought to reduce infant mortality. Healthcare was still not a Christian issue. Freethinkers had first proposed a National Health Service in the nineteenth century, and the idea was implemented by liberals and socialists in the twentieth century. Many churchmen opposed such ideas, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy succeeded in having one such scheme scuppered in the Republic of Ireland. The Archbishop of Dublin summoned the Teasoc and informed him that the scheme was "contrary to Catholic morals"18.

    Few would doubt today that Hippocrates was correct in his assertion that every illness has a natural cause, but the Church denied it for almost 2,000 years. Now only a few minority sects, such as the incongruously named Christian Scientists, continue to do so. The Catholic Church is ever more reticent about supposed exorcisms. Even so, various Churches still oppose medical progress. Heart transplants have been opposed on the medieval grounds that the heart is the repository of the soul. When human hearts were first stopped deliberately during surgical operation it was still necessary to seek approval from the Churches. In Britain the Archbishop of Canterbury was consulted in 1957, before an artificial pump could be used to take over the function of the heart during surgery.

    Supposed miracle cures (never scientifically confirmed) are still occurring in the twenty first century.
    This is Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square in May 2013, "laying hands" on a man identified only as Angel V, to cure him of his demons. Various sources close to the Vatican acknowledged this as an exorcism until the world's media took up the story and Angel claimed that he was still possessed by demons.

    Blood transfusions and organ transplants are still opposed by a number of Church groups. Techniques such as the implantation of foetal brain cells to alleviate Parkinson's Disease have also been attacked. Continuing their traditional antipathy to medical progress, Christian Churches are also attacking medical progress in birth control, male and female fertility, stem cell research, and the genetic elimination of hereditary diseases. Many Christians have opposed research into the virus that causes AIDS and even the dissemination of information about it. The grounds, the same as those previously applied to information about syphilis and a host of other preventable ills, are that AIDS is the judgement of God and it is not our place to interfere with his judgement.

    Children of ardent Christian frequently die of treatable diseases such as diabetes — around 300 over the last 25 years in the US alone — because their parent's Churches continue to teach the traditional Christian doctrine that only God can heal the sick19.


    Medical Records Compared

    Religion has not civilised man, man has civilised religion.
    Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899)

    To sum up, the Church has opposed all manner of advance in medicine. It suppressed the rational medicine of the ancient world, destroyed medical books, and promoted its own pseudo-medicine based on supernaturalism. It burned medical researchers and other proto-scientists as heretics. It opposed anatomical research and taught that illness was caused by sin. It denied medical assistance to millions, including surgery, inoculation, anaesthetics and prophylaxis. It promoted a body of falsehoods about the medical consequences of various forms of sexual activity, and has been prepared to see people die rather than contravene the word of God by permitting medical assistance. Elsewhere (pages 357- 363) we have seen that it has a poor record in respect to the treatment of the sick, notably the mentally ill, the deaf, the physically handicapped, lepers, women in labour, indeed anyone who was unlucky enough to became ill or injured. In classical Rome life expectancy had been 50-60 years. After a thousand years of Christian hegemony it had halved to around 25-30 years.

    For the 1,500 years that the Church dominated medicine it made virtually no advance whatsoever. Indeed, almost all major advances were made despite its efforts. They were made by heretics, by Muslims, by Jews, or were imported from nonbelievers outside Christendom. For centuries the only medical advances within Christendom were made by enemies of the Church like Paracelsus , or those who ignored its restrictions, like Leonardo DA Vinci. The Enlightenment brought medicine to many who had been ignored or maltreated by the Church, notably the insane, the old, the blind, the deaf and the congenitally deformed. The Enlightenment also triggered an interest in public health, hygiene and infant mortality. The Church's traditional position on many medical matters was challenged by freethinkers: first by humanists, then by deists, then by atheists. The greatest Christian contributions came from Quakers and from occasional maverick believers who were prepared to defy their Churches.

    The most curious thing of all is that senior churchmen seem always to have had at least an inkling about the efficacy of scientific medicine. During the many centuries that they were denying medical help to others, many bishops, cardinals and popes retained their own personal Jewish physicians.

    Christian opposition to medical progress is but one example of Christian hostility to scientific progress, a topic to which we will return.





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    1. The author of On the Sacred Disease in the Corpus Hippocraticum c.400 BC made a strong plea for natural explanations of medical conditions and held that epilepsy, known as the Sacred Disease, was no more sacred than any other disease. See G. E. R. Lloyd, Magic, Reason and Experience, Cambridge University Press (1979), pp 15ff.

    1a. Council of Tours, 1163, Canon 8: Ban on the Study of the Laws of Physical Nature by Clerics.

    (The language is rather opaque, even in translation, but the gist is conformation of the traditional Christian idea that seeking after knowledge through rational endeavour is satanic, that brighter, more inquisitive types are at great risk, and that contact with lay people who might be party to scientific knowledge is particularly dangerous.)

    Ut religiosi saecularia studia vitent.   That the religious are to avoid secular studies.

    Non magnopere antiqui hostis invidia infirma membra ecclesiae praecipitare laborat, sed manum mittit ad desiderabiliora eius, et electos quoque nititur supplantare, dicente scriptura: "Escae eius electi." Multorum siquidem casum operari se reputat, ubi pretiosius aliquod membrum ecclesiae sua fuerit calliditate detractum. Et Inde nimirum est, quod in angelum lucis se more solito transfigurans, sub obtentu languentium fratrum consulendi corporibus et ecclesiastica negotia fidelius pertractandi, regulares quosdam ad legendas leges et confectiones physicales ponderandas de claustris suis educit. Unde, ne suboccasione scientiae spirituales viri mundanis rursus actionibus involvantur, et in interioribus ex eo ipso deficiant, ex quo se aliis putant in exterioribus providere, per praesentis concilii assensum statuimus, ut nulli omnino post votum religionis, et post factam in aliquo loco religioso professionem ad physicam legesve mundanas legendas permittantur exire. Si vero exierint, et ad claustrum suum infra duorum mensium spatium non redierint, sicut excommunicati ab omnibus evitentur, et in nulla causa, si patrocinium praestare voluerint, audiantur. Reversi autem in choro, capitulo, mensa et ceteris ultimi fratrum [semper] exsistant, et, nisi forte ex misericordia sedis apostolicae, totius spem promotionis amittant.


    Not greatly does Satan work his hatred through envy to cast down the weak members of the church, but rather he sends his hand towards those who are more desirous of him, and likewise to trip up the elite. Scripture says: "the chosen are his food". Accordingly, for many, given a chance to enhance their reputation, the more valuable members of the church by means of this, his [Satan's] shrewdness, are brought down. And then, of course, as usual transforming himself into an angel of light, under the pretence of healing the bodies of sick brothers and the discussion of the more faithful ecclesiastical affairs, he takes some of the chosen regulars away from their cloisters to study ponderous confections and physical laws. Because of which, not under the pretext of acquiring of knowledge but rather on the contrary spiritual men are involved with worldly persons from which in the inside they grow weak, out from which they think that others from the outside can provide; therefore with the assent of the present council I decree that no one at all who has taken up a vow of religion, and after which has been installed in a religious institution, is permitted to leave it to study the worldly laws of physical nature. If, however, they shall have gone out, but have not returned to their own cloister within the space of two months, they are to be avoided by all as if they were excommunicated; if they wish to defend themselves they are to be heard. They are to return, however, back to the choir, the chapter, and lastly the table of the rest of their brotherhood to stand forth, except, perhaps, at the mercy of the apostolic see, or they can expect to lose all hope of promotion.

    2. Ackerknecht, A Short History of Medicine, p 90.

    3. This teaching stemmed from St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q92, a1 and q99, a2. His idea about the influence of the wind supported the views of Albertus Magnus: Quaestiones Super de Animalibus, XVIII, q i.

    4. Ackerknecht, A Short History of Medicine, p 43.

    5. Von den Blendwerken der Dämonen, von Zauberei und Hexerie (On Demonic Delusions, Sorcery and Witchcraft) published in 1563.

    6. Letter from Hubertus Languetus to Kaspar Peucer, dated, 1 Jan., 1565

    7. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p 640.

    8. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p 328.

    9. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p 412.

    10. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, pp 414 and 435 footnote 44.

    11. .Here is the text of a remarkable letter from Lady Montague (Mary Wortley Montague), Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M--y W--y M--e: Written During her Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa. . . , vol. 1 (Aix: Anthony Henricy, 1796), pp. 167-69; letter 36, to Mrs. S. C. from Adrianople, n.d.

    A propos of distempers, I am going to tell you a thing, that will make you wish yourself here. The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless, by the invention of engrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox; they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her, with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much matter as can lie upon the head of her needle , and after that, binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens four or five veins. The Grecians have commonly the superstition of opening one in the middle of the forehead, one in each arm, and one on the breast, to mark the sign of the Cross; but this has a very ill effect, all these wounds leaving little scars, and is not done by those that are not superstitious, who chuse to have them in the legs, or that part of the arm that is concealed. The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark, and in eight days time they are as well as before their illness. Where they are wounded, there remains running sores during the distemper, which I don't doubt is a great relief to it. Every year, thousands undergo this operation, and the French Ambassador says pleasantly, that they take the small-pox here by way of diversion, as they take the waters in other countries. There is no example of any one that has died in it, and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of this experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take the pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England, and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue, for the good of mankind. But that distemper is too beneficial to them, not to expose to all their resentment, the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps if I live to return, I may, however, have courage to war with them. Upon this occasion, admire the heroism in the heart of

    Your friend, etc. etc.


    12 A knight for example was expected to take a ritual bath before receiving his knighthood, a sort of baptism into a new life. (The practice is recalled by the name of the Knights of the Bath, although it was expected of all new knights.)

    13. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, p 265.

    14. This list of illnesses is a selection from a Puritan physician (Bekkers) and a nineteenth century Trappist physician (J. C. Debreyne) cited in Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, pp 283 and 285.

    15. Dr. Ann Dally, Women Under the Knife, Hutchinson Radius (1991).

    16. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, pp 221-2.

    17. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, p 154.

    18. Tribe, 100 Years of Freethought, p 120.

    19. Stories of children dying of treatable medical complaints are often reported in the US where the legal codes in 30 states provide protection for practitioners of of so-called faith-based healing. See the New York Times (Global Edition) January 4 th 2009 “Religious Denial Of Treatment Goes On Trial”, covering the death of 11 year old Kara Neumann in Weston, Wisconsin, who died of easily treated juvenile diabetes. As the police report noted the child was clearly dying the day before “Kara laid down and was unable to move her mouth, and merely made moaning noises and moved her eyes back and forth”. Symathetic believers said the parents, charged with reckless endangerment, were now being persecuted and “charged with the crime of praying”. The figure of 300 child deaths in 25 years comes from Rita Swan, director of an Iowa group “Children's Healthcare Is A Legal Duty”. See also and












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