The Renaissance & Medicine

Throughout human history, progress in medical knowledge was hindered by its slow and localized development. The scarcity of books and manuals, coupled with low literacy rates, limited access to valuable knowledge. Additionally, seeking medical treatment was often unaffordable for the majority of working individuals, resulting in many people enduring suffering and succumbing to illnesses that could be easily treated in present times.

An illustration of The Printing Press

An illustration of Johannes Gutenberg's printing press

The Printing Press

The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1436 in Germany, brought about a profound transformation in the advancement of knowledge and the spread of information, not only in medicine but many other fields. The invention of printing meant that medical textbooks, with accurate sketches of the human body, could now be produced more cheaply and this helped ideas to spread rapidly.

The Renaissance

The Renaissance was a movement that occured in Europe from the 14th century onwards that brought about advances in art, culture, science and politics. And many advances in medicine were also made. Renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, studied the human body closely to replicate it in art and diagrams which helped further medical knowledge.

These advances also encouraged people to think for themselves and soon they began to challenge old ideas, e.g the ancient teachings of Hippocrates and Galen. Doctors such as Andreas Vesalius (1514) and William Harvey (1578) began to experiment and to develop new ideas about anatomy and the circulation of blood.

Andreas Vesalius

In 1537, aged just 22, Vesalius became professor of medicine at Padua University in Italy. He insisted that his medical students should perform dissections to find out how the human body worked. A local judge took an interest in Vesalius' work. He allowed Vesalius to use the bodies of executed criminals for dissection. Vesalius was now able make repeated dissections of humans.

In 1543 Vesalius published his book, The Fabric of the Human Body. He employed artists to make accurate drawings of the human body. These gave doctors more detailed knowledge of human anatomy.

Vesalius had proved that some of Galen's ideas on anatomy were innaccurate. For example Galen claimed that the lower jaw was made up of two bones, not one. He encouraged others to investigate for themselves and not just accept traditional teachings.

An illustration of The Printing Press

Andreas Vesalius produced highly detailed anatomical drawings.

William Harvey

William Harvey experimented with the principle of the circulation of the blood through the body. Before Harvey, doctors accepted Galen's idea that new blood was manufactured by the liver to replace blood that had been burned up by the muscles (and not circulated as we understand today).

William Harvey diagrams on circulation

William Harvey diagrams on circulation

William Harvey became physician to King James I (and later to Charles I). Both kings were interested in science and encouraged Harvey's research. He was also a lecturer in anatomy. He dissected animals and carried out experiments to build up a detailed knowledge of the working of the cardio-vascular system (the heart and blood vessels). This led him to reject Galen's ideas. In 1628 he published 'An Anatomical Account of the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals'. In this book he proved that the heart acted like a pump and was responsible for recirculating the blood around the body.

Ambroise Pare portrait

Ambroise Paré, born c. 1510 in France.

Ambroise Paré

Another important figure was Ambroise Paré (1510), who was a French barber surgeon. He is considered as one of the fathers of surgery and forensic pathology and also a pioneer in surgical techniques and battlefield medicine.

As new weapons developed in Europe, that used gunpowder, it forced battlefield doctors to think about new ways to treat new types of wounds.

Vesalius, Paré and Harvey all made great contributions to medical knowledge. And there were several reasons why this new medical knowledge gained ground during their time.

  • The church was becoming less influential. Scientists were able to adopt a more scientific approach which involved experimentation, observation and recording results.
  • They took advantage of the printing press to spread ideas. Harvey had his book published during the annual book fair in Frankfurt in Germany, knowing that people from all over Europe would be present.
  • They had the support of influential people. Ambroise Paré treated four kings of France and Harvey was physician to two English kings. Vesalius had the support of the authorities in Padua

However, although progress had been made, there were still obstacles.

  • Many doctors refused to accept the new knowledge and stuck with Galen and traditional treatments.
  • Paré was looked down upon because he was only a barber surgeon, not a university-trained doctor. And also because he wrote his books in French and not Latin.
  • Some patients were also resistant to new ideas.


Although medical knowledge had moved forward greatly during the Renaissance, the impact on everyday health for most people was limited. Knowledge of anatomy had improved, but surgery still remained risky for many other reasons, such as infection. And many patients continued to die. The next much needed leap of medical advance, was the discovery of bacteria.