Making Trials in Sixteenth- and Early Seventeenth- Century Medicine
This paper explores the context of making and reporting trials of drugs and cures in sixteenth-century Europe, and suggests a revised and complementary history of the development of experimental practices.
Historians of science have long regarded early modern Europe as the home for the widespread development of experimental practices, but we lack a comprehensive account of this development. Current narratives of the rise experimentation privilege the mathematical and physical sciences, but, as this paper argues, earlier physicians working on medical subjects performed an impressive and diverse array of ‘trials’ of phenomena and claims about them. I trace the phrase ‘periculum facere’ (‘to make a trial’) and related terms through natural history investigations, drug testing, chymical analysis, and anatomical examinations. Physicians used their expertise and pedagogical authority to anchor the epistemic status of their trials, and incorporated the historical narratives of their trial-making within arguments to genuine knowledge, and even scientia.
As is well-known, medieval physicians reserved the word ‘experimentum’ for a medical drug recipe. Sometimes ‘experimenta’ could be tests of drugs on animals or patients, as in the work of Arnau of Vilanova. Several scholars have argued that prior to the late sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, there was no clear linguistic distinction between general ‘experience’ (experientia) and specific tests (experimenta) in Latin philosophy or medicine. Most recently, taking a cue from Charles Schmitt, Peter Dear has pointed to the late-sixteenth-century mixed mathematics as the site for the discursive differentiation of general experience and singular, contrived experiment. In his early work on motion, Galileo distinguished between general experience (experientia) and specific, contrived tests by using the phrase “to make a trial” (periculum facere).
In the from the late-fifteenth century, at least, and into the seventeenth century hosts of influential physicians used this same phrase to provide epistemic warrant for their claims. They first described trials of remedies against the plague and other epidemics, then anatomical trials of fluid flow and structure, natural-historical tests of mountain mice and mineral baths. From Marsilio Ficino to Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Gabriele Falloppio, Berengario da Carpi, Andreas Vesalius, and Girolamo Fabrizi, key physicians referenced their historical trials in published works, letters, and student lectures, especially at Padua. Cicero and Terence provided these physicians with some Latin linguistic models, as did translations of Galen and texts from Empiric physicians. The experimenta of Galena and the empeiria of the Empirics could provide models for new trials, some of which grounded universal, causal knowledge claims.
This study is still incomplete, but it is suggestive. It seems that independently of and prior to the widespread development of experiments in mixed mathematics, early modern medicine enjoyed a lively tradition of contrived, first-person empirical trials of claims and general theses.