Friday, April 22, 2016

1800-1900: The scientific revolution and the age of progress

Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species" may have helped
to spark the scientific revolution 
Perhaps among the most important centuries in the evolution of medicine wisdom was the 19th century. The great historian Fielding Hudson Garrison explained that this was the century that put an end to old dogmatic theories, thus opening the door for medicine and science to move forward. (1, page 424)

Respiratory diseases, particularly those looped under the umbrella term asthma, benefited greatly as pathology (the study of disease) and internal medicine (diagnosis and treatment of disease) were advanced during the course of the 18th century.  This brought us a greater understanding of the physiology of respiration,  setting the stage for what would transpire in the 19th century.

For instance, Mark Jackson, in his book "Asthma: A Biography, explained the following:
Eager to reject older irrational, mystical models of health and sickness, prominent Enlightenment physicians, such as Thomas Sydenham 1624-1689), George Stahl (1660-1734), Friedrish Hoffmann (1660-1742), and Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738), not only increasingly emphasized the importance of careful observation of the patterns and presentations of disease, but also strove to develop 'a simple and logical synthesis of medical knowledge designed to replace increasingly obsolete humoral conceptions inherited from antiquity' and to alleviate and conquer ill health.  (2, page 70)
Investigations of the human body, and new ideas such as "careful observation of patters and presentations of disease" brought about a better understanding not just regarding diseases, but the treatments to remedy them.  However, old theories persisted, thus acting as fetters to the furthering of wisdom.

Such theoretic fetters holding back great minds did not exist in the 19th century, wrote Fielding Hudson Garrison in his book "An Introduction to the history of medicine,"  mainly due to such works as: (1, page 424, 426)
  • Friedrich Schelling's "Natural Philosophy" in 1797, "which aimed at establishing a subjective and objective identity of all things." (1, page 425)
  • Hermann von Hemholtz,'s "Conservation of Energy" in 1847, which established the idea that no energy was lost in muscle movement, and that there was no vital force that causes muscle movement (wikepedia)
  • Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species" in 1859, which established the idea that living creatures, including humans, evolve over time as changes in their environments occur. 
These works were met with much reservation and controversy by a dogmatic society, although they had a significant impact on both science and medicine, helping to open up the doors for scientific progress. As the ideas put forth by these works were accepted, great minds were no longer limited by theories made by famous men of the past, thus opening up a whole new world for them. (1, page 424)

Hermann Hemholtz shot down the age old theory that
'there was a vital force responsible for muscle movement.
His scientifically proven idea helped spark a revolution.
As noted by Garrison:
"It took a long time to demonstrate that the advancement of internal medicine as a science can never be accomplished by hugging some pet theory out of a regard for it's author's personality, but only through the performance of a vast amount of chemical, physical, and biological research by thousands of willing workers." (1, page 426)
Yet even though medical theories were no longer existent, "the modern scientific movement did not attain its full stride until well after the middle of the century. The medicine of the early half was, with a few noble exceptions, only part and parcel of the stationary theorizing of the preceding age," wrote Garrison.  (1, page 425)

A good example of this we can find in our own asthma history.  Dr. Robert Bree, who was the preeminent asthma expert in the first half of the 19th century, continued to believe in old humoral theories.  On the other hand, Dr. Henry Hyde Salter, who was the preeminent asthma expert in the second half of the 19th century, devised modern conclusions regarding asthma based on scientific investigations. 

Friedrish Schelling encouraged the subjective and the objective
review of patients. His ideas helped spark the scientific revolution.
We have to under stand, however, that the fact Bree did not use science and Salter did does not mean that Salter's conclusions were flawless, because they weren't.  The fact that pure asthma left behind no scarring in the lungs caused him to deduce, as experts before him had, that asthma must be nervous in origin.  Surely he was wrong, but he also didn't know about the immune system. 

The term asthma went through an amazing transformation during the course of the 19th century, with many physicians hunting for answers, and each coming to his own conclusion.  Some were right, thus leading investigators in the right direction.  Some were wrong, thus leading investigators in the wrong direction.  Regardless, all such investigations benefited our disease, thus setting the stage for what would transpire in the 20th century. 

  1. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An introduction to the history of medicine," 1913, 1st edition, Philadelphia and London, W.B. Saunders and Company
  2. Jackson, Mark, "Asthma: A biography," 2009, New York, Oxford University Press; reference quoted by Jackson: Guenter B. Risse, "Medicine in the age of Enlightenment," in Andrew Wear, editor, Medicine in Society: Historical Essays, (Cambridge, 1992), pages 149-95
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