The primacy of the printing press in medicine through time

Samuel Mack-Poole
6th September 2017 at 13:59

Subject Genius, Samuel Mack-Poole, The primacy of the printing press in medicine through time

Many moons ago, the wheels of Fortuna both rolled in an upwards spiral. I was 27, working in the Middle East, and my Texan housemate, a man well-versed in the sciences, recommended that I watch a documentary series on the history of science. I am so glad we had that chance conversation, as he opened up my mind to a way of thinking that would immensely benefit my history teaching.

In brief, I watched The Day the Universe Changed: A Personal View by James Burke. In this series, episode 4 focuses upon the printing press. James Burke made me realise how crucial the printing press was to science, culture, philosophy and western society in general.  The title of the episode is Printing Transforms Knowledge. How apt that title is.

While sitting down in my apartment, my mind was utterly absorbed by such a fantastic invention.

Prior to the printing press, books were very rare as they were handwritten. The reserve of the royal and the religious, books would have taken weeks or months to complete. By and large, they were written by Christian monks, who saw it as a means of worship to produce Bibles so that Christianity would be preserved through the ages (a task they were successful in).

Other topics were also written about, but nowhere to the same degree as Christ’s teachings. History, poetry, philosophy and medicine were all written about as long as they were culturally relevant or able to be absorbed within a Christian zeitgeist.

Therefore, due to the fact that Galenus (129 AD – c. 200/c. 216), or as we know him, Galen, wrote medical ideas were highly palatable to the Catholic Church (although a pagan, he wrote of the soul, something that we all know is a Christian concern), his medicinal ideas were supported for over 1500 years in an act of continuity as yet unrivalled in recorded medicinal history.

This was the case until the Renaissance. Any history teacher (assuming he/she has taught medicine) will know how Vesalius wrote Fabrica which challenged Galen’s ideas on biology.

Moreover, the more potent challenge came from William Harvey, who built on Vesalius’ ideas and discovered that the heart is a pump, and that blood circulates the body (correcting Galen’s mistaken ideas on bloodletting and thereby allowing scientifically correct and testable ideas on medical science to flourish, albeit after a period of quite potent medical opposition).

Nonetheless, while the printing press is mentioned in the piloted SOL created by Edexcel with their new 9-1 GCSE specification, its creator is not! Johannes Gutenberg (1400 – February 3, 1468), who is, for me, one of the most significant men in the landscape of history is somewhat forgotten despite that his impact is very much felt by every single human on the planet on a daily basis.

How many children, at least in the developed world, go a day without seeing a book in this day and age? His invention represents a key turning point in the way human ideas, information and history were transmitted and communicated.

Subject Genius, Samuel Mack-Poole, The primacy of the printing press in medicine through time

We all owe a gigantic debt of gratitude towards Gutenberg, for he made so much possible. Shakespeare, Goethe, Sir Isaac Newton...these towering geniuses wouldn’t have emerged as they did without the hugely beneficial printing press. It isn’t an overstatement to say that Gutenberg’s invention is responsible for the very shape of western civilisation today.

The printing press is the internet before the internet – information could flow faster than ever before, and ideas flowed around Europe in the lingua franca which was Latin – English, during the renaissance, did not have the esteemed and dominant status it has today. And how did that information flow! Martin Luther’s reformation wouldn’t have had the elegant momentum that it did had he not utilised the printing press (his pamphlets and books represented 20% of all materials printed in Germany between 1500-1530).

It is safe to say that the printing press was the driving force of the renaissance and the reformation and that it led to Europe dominating global events for the next four centuries.

With all this contextualised and fully in mind, I will now get to the point: the printing press is of colossal salience to the history of medicine. When teaching it to students, I simplify the course into two parts to illustrate the impact of Gutenberg’s printing press. Somewhat annoyingly, as thematical courses fall into four blocks (the middle ages 1250-1500, the renaissance 1500-1750, Pax Britannica 1750-1900, the modern age 1900-present day), Gutenberg’s invention was first created in 1440, but its impact wasn’t truly felt into the Renaissance.

With the exception of the Roman baths, pretty much everything prior to the printing press is inaccurate or full of half-truths.

Post-printing press, we can observe a spectacular and rapid development in matters medicinal. Anatomy, diagnosis, circulation, even the laws from King Charles II during the Great Plague of London – all can be traced back to Gutenberg’s invention of necessity. The back-story is very interesting; apparently, Gutenberg had invested in some spiritual trinkets for a pilgrimage but had calculated one thing wrong – the date of the pilgrimage. This wasn’t really his fault as it had been cancelled because of a flood. With that being the case, and needing to satisfy his investors, Gutenberg is said to have unveiled his invention in 1440.

As any map of the spread of the printing press will testify, the invention disseminated fairly rapidly for the time period.

Just think of it: This must have been an exciting time. The merchants selling this around Europe would have known how revolutionary and time-saving this invention was.

Though they remain nameless, these merchants represent the tide of human history, ebbing ferociously forward. Despite the fact they are of the utmost importance, I can only speculate as to how much of an impact they thought it would make.

What is a crying shame is the fact that if you ask the common man on the street who Johannes Gutenberg is, or about his contribution to the world, they probably wouldn’t know – that’s something we should all try to rectify.

Samuel Mack-Poole is a history teacher from Bexleyheath.