As we shall see in the course of this book, there was no bull or any other document issued by the Popes forbidding dissection or hampering the development of anatomy in any way. As a matter of fact, the ecclesiastics, instead of being behind their age in liberality of spirit with regard to the use of the human body after death for anatomical purposes, were always ahead of it. There has always existed a popular horror of dissection, and this has manifested itself from the earliest times in history down to and within the last half century, in refusal to enact such secular legislation as would properly provide for the practice of dissection. This was as true in the United States until within the memory of men still alive as it had always been hitherto in European history. Dissection came to be allowed so freely in the medieval universities founded under ecclesiastical influence and ruled by ecclesiastics, as the result of the intelligent realization on the part of churchmen that the study of the human body was necessary for a proper recognition and appreciation of the causes of the ills to which flesh is heir. They realized that the only way to lay the foundation of exact medical knowledge was not only to permit, but to encourage the practice of dissection, and accordingly this was done at everyone of a dozen medical schools of Italy during the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and nowhere more so than at the Papal University at Rome itself during the sixteenth century, at a time when, if we would believe Dr. White, the Church authorities were doing everything in their power to prevent dissection.
None of the other sciences allied to medicine were hampered in any way, but, on the contrary, fostered and encouraged; and the devoted students of science were prominent churchmen, some of whom were honored with the title of saint after their deaths. In spite of declarations to the contrary, chemistry was not forbidden by a Papal decree or other document, though the practice of certain alchemists of pretending to make gold and silver out of baser metals and thus cheating people was condemned, just as we condemn the corresponding practice of selling “gold bricks” at the present time. As will be made very clear, the Pope who issued the decree that forbids such sharp practices was a distinguished and discriminating patron of medical education at the beginning of the fourteenth century, doing more for it than any ruler for three centuries after his time; yet in doing so he was only carrying out the policy which had been maintained by the Popes before his time and was to continue ever afterwards.
James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)