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Week One: the New Sciences and the Body

Audio recording of this week's lecture (to download right click with your mouse and save file).

In this first week's lecture, I will speak about the most significant ways in which the evolution of knowledge of the natural world in European scientific circles influenced perceptions of the workings of the human body.

In the lecture I will address the following questions:

  • What influence did growing understanding of regularities in the working of the physical universe have amongst physicians and other investigators of the human body?
  • How did late seventeenth and early eighteenth century interpretations of human physiology differ from earlier theories of the bodily functions? Were these older ideas entirely displaced?
  • What changes can we discern in the ways in which the relations between body and mind were understood?
  • What seem to be the main changes that had occurred in how human physiology was understood by last third of the eighteenth century?

In this second week there is no tutorial. You are encouraged to read as much as you can of the primary and secondary sources listed in connection with the first week's lecture.

In this second week of the course we will try to understanding how the work of Isaac Newton and other key figures of the scientific revolution influenced European medical thinking about the body.

I would like you to read some parts of key historical texts available to UQ participants in this course in eighteenth editions in digital form.

I do not expect you to try and read all, or even a significant proportion of the important primary texts listed below. However, I would like you to try and read the introductory chapters, and also two or so other chapters, in each of these works, together with the recommended scholarship also listed below.

If you do so, you will see that perhaps the most significant shift in medical thought was away from what was an essentially an "hydraulic" model of the body to one that saw greater exploration of the nervous system and great interest in what were presumed to be important vital qualities, commonly referred to as irritability and sensibility. This shift in medical thought will be the focus of my lecture.

It is a good idea to begin by sampling the first volume of the Institutes of Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) listed below, after consulting the useful entry on this influential physician and medical theorist within wikipedia at

After this you will be best served by exploring the writings of George Cheyne (1673-1743), Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) and Albrecht von Haller (1708-77) listed below:

Please note that to access these texts you will need to go the University of Queensland library catalogue, locate the catalogue record for Eighteenth Century Online, and then search for the texts below on the author or title

George Cheyne

  • Cheyne, George.The english malady: or, a treatise of nervous diseases of all kinds, as spleen, vapours, lowness of spirits, hypochondriacal, and hysterical distempers, &c. In three parts. Part I. Of the Nature and Cause of Nervous Distempers. Part II. Of the Cure of Nervous Distempers. Part III. Variety of Cases that illustrate and confirm the Method of Cure. With the Author's own case at large. By George Cheyne, M.D. Fellow of the College of Physicians at Edinburg, and ... London, M.DCC.XXXIII. [1733]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Queensland. 10 June 2010

Herman Boerhaave

  • Boerhaave, Herman. Dr. Boerhaave's academical lectures on the theory of physic. Being a genuine translation of his institutes and explanatory comment, collated and adjusted to each other, as they were dictated to his students at the University of Leyden. ... . Containing the Structure and Action of the Spleen, Omentum, Liver, Kidneys, Bladder, Muscles and Skin; with the Nature of Sweat, Perspiration and Nutrition. Vol. Volume 1. London, MDCCXLIV. [1742-46]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Queensland. 2 June 2010

Albrecht von Haller

  • Haller, Albrecht von. Haller, Albrecht von. A dissertation on the sensible and irritable parts of animals. By M.A. Haller, M.D. President of the Royal Society of Sciences at Gottingen: member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris: &c. Translated from the Latin. With a preface by M. Tissot, M.D. London, MDCCLV. [1755]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Queensland. 2 June 2010

Recommended Scholarship

On Cheyne

Brown, Theodore M. 1987. Medicine in the shadow of the 'Principia.' Journal of the History of Ideas 48, (4) (10): 629-49.

Guerrini, Anita. 1999. A diet for a sensitive soul: Vegetarianism in eighteenth-century Britain. Eighteenth-Century Life 23, (2) (05): 34.

---. 1999. The hungry soul: George Cheyne and the construction of femininity. Eighteenth-Century Studies 32, (3) (Spring 99): 279.

---. 1985. James Keill, George Cheyne, and Newtonian physiology, 1690-1740. Journal of the History of Biology 18, (2) (Summer1985): 247-66.

Ishizuka, Hisao. 2006. The elasticity of the animal fibre: Movement and life in Enlightenment medicine. History of Science 44, (4) (12): 435-68.

Shapin, Steven. 2003. Trusting George Cheyne: Scientific expertise, common sense, and moral authority in early eighteenth-century dietetic medicine. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77, (2) (Summer2003): 263.

Turner, Bryan S. 1982. The government of the body: Medical regimens and the rationalization of diet. British Journal of Sociology 33, (2) (06): 254-69.

On Boerhaave and von Haller

All articles available online via UQ Library

Boury, Dominique. 2008.   Irritability and sensibility: Key concepts in assessing the medical doctrines of Haller and Bordeu. In Science in Context. Vol. 21, 521-535.

Buess, Heinrich. 1970. William Harvey and the foundation of modern haemodynamics by Albrecht von Haller. Medical History 14, (2) (04): 175-82.

Cunningham, Andrew. 2003. The pen and the sword: Recovering the disciplinary identity of physiology and anatomy before 1800: II: Old anatomy-the sword. Studies in History & Philosophy of Biological & Biomedical Sciences 34, (1) (03): 51.

---. 2002. The pen and the sword: Recovering the disciplinary identity of physiology and anatomy before 1800: I: Old physiology-the pen. Studies in History & Philosophy of Biological & Biomedical Sciences 33, (4) (12): 631.

de Clercq, Peter. 1989. The leiden cabinet of physics. Museum boerhaave communication. Vol. 271. Leiden: Museum Boerhaave.

Donovan, Arthur. 1976. Pneumatic chemistry and Newtonian natural philosophy in the eighteenth century: William Cullen and Joseph Black. ISIS: Journal of the History of Science in Society 67, (2) (06): 217-28.

King, Lester S. 1978. The philosophy of medicine : The early eighteenth century. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Harvard University Press.

Risse, Guenter B. 1974. Doctor William Cullen, physician, Edinburgh": A consultation practice in the eighteenth century. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 48, (3) (Fall1974): 338-51.

Roe, Shirley A. 1975. The development of Albrecht von Haller's views on embryology. Journal of the History of Biology 8, (2) (Summer1975): 167-90.

Sonntag, Otto. 1974. The motivations of the scientist: The self-image of Albrecht von Haller. ISIS: Journal of the History of Science in Society 65, (3) (09): 336-51.

Stott, Rosalie. 1987. Health and virtue: Or, how to keep out of harm's way. lectures on pathology and therapeutics by William Cullen C. 1770. Medical History 31, (2) (04): 123-42.

Taylor, D. W. 1988. Discourses on the human physiology" by Alexander Monro 'primus' (1697-1767). Medical History 32, (1) (01): 65-81.

Taylor, Georgette. 2006. Unification achieved: William Cullen's theory of heat and phlogiston as an example of his philosophical chemistry. British Journal for the History of Science 39, (143) (12): 477-501.

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