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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 111

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Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680

Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680. By Andrew Wear (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2000) 496 pp. $74.95 cloth $27.95 paper

During the last three to four decades, the new social history of medicine has added greatly to our understanding of early modern medicine, owing partly to Wear's own earlier work. 1 Yet, though much more is known about the context in which medicine was practiced, not yet enough is known about the actual practice itself. Wear sets out to remedy this situation in this rich and interesting book. His focus is on the treatments, examinations, and advice that doctors gave to their patients—the very stuff of medical practice.

Because more has been written about diseases during this period than about remedies, he focuses on the latter first, though he does not ignore the general scene. One of Wear's greatest contributions in this large volume is the wide reading that he has done in both primary and secondary sources—all reflected in the copious footnotes.

In Wear's period of study, 1550 to 1680, learned medicine in the universities was well underway, and many medical books sought to spread medical knowledge among practitioners and their patients. By the end of that period, the outlines of what would be the medicine of the eighteenth century had become clear.

Besides a much lower life expectancy than ours today, the great threats to health and life in the early modern world were high infant and child mortality, the ever-present threat of infection, and a higher mortality rate among the poor, the largest segment of the population. In an informative chapter, Wear shows not only the importance of plant, animal, and mineral substances for the treatment of disease but also elucidates the role of therapeutics in the continuing battles between followers of differing medical philosophies. The Galenists were largely fond of herbal remedies, whereas doctors who adhered to the teachings of Paracelsus tended to champion chemical remedies. The followers of Jan Baptista van Helmont urged the use of simple rather than compound remedies.

Chapters on hygiene and prevention and on surgery round out the extensive survey of medical practices. In addition, more specific chapters are devoted to the recurrent threat of bubonic plague and to the conflicting theories and practices of the Helmontians and the Galenists.

Wear's comprehensive survey of British medical theories and practices in the early modern era adds much to our understanding not just of the medicine of the time but also to the public's response to the many threats to life and limb that it faced daily.


Gert H. Brieger
Johns Hopkins University


1. For example, see Wear (ed.), Medicine in Society, Historical Essays (New York, 1992).



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