Cartesianism in 17th century medical education

Hendrik Punt


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ISBN: 9789082917611, geïllustreerd, 180 blz., December 2019, Engels

Uitgever: Bibliotheca medico-historica Leidensis


René Descartes
17th century scientist René Descartes turned the established sciences upside down by questioning all certainties and building blocks. His critical mind rejected all propositions that could not be proven by means of the Ratio. The most important knowledge of the philosopher was that of the ‘primary causes’ which he called Principia.
In Cartesian philosophy, metaphysics provided the foundation for the explanation of natural phenomena (physics) and related disciplines such as medicine, biology, ethics, etc. Metaphysics is a metaphor of the roots, physics of the trunk and medicine of the branches and leaves of the Cartesian tree. This was diametrically opposed to the Aristotelian theory in which observation was the basis of this knowledge.
Triumviraat: Descartes, Regius en de Raey
Henricus Regius (1598-1679), an Utrecht physician, soon emerged as his representative after the first publications by Descartes. On his own initiative, he had prepared some 200 theses that had to put an end to classical humor theory. In private education he dealt with the new Cartesian physiology. Nobody knew that all disputations were read, checked and rewritten by the spiritual father himself.
De Raey defended four of the total of 12 disputations from 1641 to 1643. It is a breathtaking exercise that shows us how activities of the heart, mind and metabolism were squeezed into Cartesian armor. What originally started with a metaphysically constructed model became a patchwork of metaphysics and experimental artifacts. Descartes eventually got lost in his own created maze.
De hybride Descartes -Aristoteles
De Raey, who once called Descartes his best student, did not give up so quickly.
He understood that Cartesian philosophy offered no way to explain an effective Cartesian medicine. He therefore had to make modifications to the Cartesian concept.
De Raey opted for a strategy that consisted of looking for similarities between Descartes and Aristotle and synthesizing the old and the new doctrine.
Cartesian medicine
From 1654, De Raey held the chair of philosophy at Leiden University. In 1658 he was instructed to give medical lectures. For four years, Raey has taught theoretical medicine in private classes. Each student had to write a Thesis at the end of the curriculum. A few 10-dozen medical theses must have seen the light in this period. The only copy that has survived for three and a half centuries has recently been found by the author
It concerns 45 statements on the subject of fevers by his student Israel Conrat, which he defended on 5 February 1659 in the large auditorium at Rapenburg.
De Raey postulates an "endocrine" relationship between mind and body. The anima is stirred by thoughts and emotions and sends spirit through the body in response. The spirit is sent selectively to all secretory organs and can cause fever spikes in the event of excessive stimulation. The secreted fluids mix with blood and form fermentation products, stimulating the metabolic processes. With this interpretation of the soul-body relationship, De Raey takes an important step in the direction of a psychosomatic pattern of thought.


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over de schrijver(s)In addition to his profession as a military physician, the author was also a member of the academic staff of the History of Medicine research group in Leiden during the 1980s.
He focused his work there on anatomy and physiology in Leiden in the 18th century. He also wrote an overview of developments in twenty-five years of medicine together with the then head of the research group, the late Prof. A.M. Luyendijk-Elshout.
In 1983, he published a standard work on the anatomist Bernard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770), whereby he used ‘forgotten’ anatomical and physiological sources. These were old lecture notes and anatomical preliminary studies.
During the last two decades he has worked as an eye surgeon at the Military Hospital in Utrecht and later at the University Medical Center Utrecht.
He is currently co-owner and medical director of Eyescan, an ophthalmic healthcare clinic.
Throughout this time, he did not lose his interest in Leiden’s medical history. He brought together an extensive collection of Leiden’s medical publications, including anatomical atlases, anatomical and physiological books, disputations, practice disputations, inaugural speeches, manuscripts, prints, portraits and instruments. He translated and annotated a large part of these publications himself.
During this period, he became increasingly interested in the content of the disputations, and in particular the disputations exercitii gratia. These were public practice disputations on subjects that the lecturer had taught during his private tutorials (collegia). They often involved controversial opinions and new ideas put forward by the professors, as well as commentaries on current medical theories. One can imagine how movements such as humanism, Cartesianism and iatrochemistry caused quite a bit of unrest at the new Calvinist university in Leiden, where the classical teachings of Aristotle had been made compulsory. These disputations were often a platform for new scientific ideas.
As less than ten percent of these practice disputations have been preserved and few of the remaining editions have been annotated, we can safely say that an important part of this medical history is lacking.
The author hopes to track down as many of these practice disputations as possible, to annotate them and to give them their proper place in history.
toelichtingThis is the first part of a historical study of the medical faculty of Leiden.
No complete history of the Leiden medical faculty is available from the establishment of the university in 1575 up until 1800. In 1911, J.E. Kroon described the first years of the medical faculty in his Bijdragen tot de Geschiedenis van het Geneeskundig onderwijs aan de Leidsche universiteit 1575-1625 (‘Contributions to the History of Medical Education at Leiden University 1575-1625’). Suringar has described the medical events of the 17th and 18th centuries in a multitude of articles. The Nederlandsch Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde (Dutch Journal of Medicine) served as a refugium for this in the previous century. Medical historians were able to publish their articles there, some of which were collected in the Opuscula Selecta Neerlandicorum.
For several decades after the war H.J. Witkam published corpus analyses on the medical faculty, the library, anatomical demonstrations and other ‘everyday medical matters’. A. Lindeboom made an important contribution with his studies on Boerhaave. His Analecta Boerhaaviana is the standard work on the greatest celebrity in Leiden’s medical history.
A. Schierbeek, M.A. van Andel, F.M.G. de Feyfer, J.G. de Lint, J.A.J. Barge, J. Dankmeyer, the first professor of medical history in Leiden, A.M. Luyendijk-Elshout, and her successor H. Beukers all published studies on various aspects of medicine in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The general histories of the university written by Mathijs Siegenbeek, and more recently by Willem Otterspeer, often include detailed information of the faculty of medicine.
However, a total historical overview of the first two centuries of the medical faculty in Leiden has never been published.
It is the intention of the author to publish a number of medical studies in the near future. These are all based on draft versions that have been worked out by him over the years. These will be made available in digital form on the website ex libris hendrik (
A number of them will be published in book form in the Dutch and English languages.
These are studies of extraordinary books, but also of medical disputations and practice disputations. The practice disputations indicate the course the faculty took during the period from its establishment until 1700. Studies produced by ‘obscure’ figures such as the deaf 17th-century surgeon professor Adriaan Falcoburgius also shed new light on the medical developments in Leiden.
Also, a new study of the anatomy of B.S. Albinus will be included.
The printing discipline will also be receiving attention: books by the publisher Plantyn and his son-in-law Raphelengius, a professor of Hebrew who was also printer, woodcuts by Titian and etchings by de Lairesse, allegorical representations on title pages of theses, images of professors by famous etchers such as Hendrik Goltzius and Rembrandt, brocade editions, poetic odes and epigrams to PhD students, and beautifully printed eulogies are often underexposed works in medical circles.
The Digital Portal makes it possible to include comments on and improvements of digitally published work.
This is one of the blessings of the new digital era and makes publications like this one accessible to anyone interested in Leiden’s medical history. Moreover, digital space is unlimited...
The Portal also aims to be a platform for anyone who has questions or comments about topics relating to medical history in general and the medical faculty of Leiden in particular.
We are always glad to receive information about the location of medical disputations and practice disputations. Less than 10% of all existing medical practice disputations have been found to date. It is of great importance to academia that such seemingly ‘obscure’ practice disputations are identified and extensively studied. A foundation will be established to provide the necessary funding in order to encourage research into as-yet undiscovered medical sources.
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