At this time Morgagni was looked upon by all the medical world as probably the greatest of living medical scientists. Visitors who came to Italy who were at all interested in science, always considered that their journey had not been quite complete unless they had had an opportunity of meeting Morgagni. He had more personal friends among the scientists of all the countries of Europe than any other man of his time. The fact that this leader in science should be at the same time a great personal friend of the Popes of his time is the best possible evidence of the more than amicable relations which existed between the Church and medicine during this century. Morgagni’s life of nearly ninety years indeed, covers most of the eighteenth century, and is of itself, without more ado, an absolute proof that there was not only no friction between religion and medicine, but shows on the contrary that medical science encountered patronage and encouragement as far as ecclesiastics were concerned, while success in it brought honor and emolument. Morgagni’s personal relations to the Church are best brought out by the fact that, of his fifteen children, ten of whom lived to adult life, eight daughters became members of religious orders and one of his two surviving sons became a Jesuit. The great physician was very proud and very glad that his children should have chosen what he did not hesitate to call the better part.
After Morgagni’s time, the days of the French Revolution bring a cloud over the Papacy. There were political disturbances in Italy and the Popes were shorn of their temporal power. As a consequence their medical school loses in prestige and finally disappears. The Papal Physicians after this, while distinguished among their fellow members of the Roman medical profession, were no longer the world-known discoverers in medicine that had so often been the case before. So long as the Popes had the power and possessed the means, they used both to encourage medicine in every way, as the list of Papal Physicians shows better than anything else, and a study of this chapter of their history will undo all the false assertions with regard to the supposed opposition between the Church and science.
We have already said, and it seems to deserve repetition here, that during most of these centuries in which the Papal Physicians were among the most distinguished discoverers in medicine, the term medicine included within itself most of what we now know as physical science. Botany was studied as a branch of medicine, and as we have seen, one of the Papal Physicians, Simon Januensis, compiled a dictionary that a modern German Historian of Botany finds excellent. Astrology, under which term astronomy was included, was studied for the sake of the supposed influence of the stars on men’s constitutions.–Chemistry was a branch of medical study. Mineralogy was considered a science allied to medicine, and the use of antimony and other metals in medicine originated with physicians trying to extend the domain of knowledge to minerals. Comparative anatomy was founded by a Papal Physician. These were the principal physical sciences.
To talk of opposition between science and religion, then, with the most distinguished scientists of these centuries in friendly personal and official relations with the Popes, is to indulge in one of those absurdities common enough among those who must find matter for their condemnation of the Popes and the Church, but that every advance in modern history has pushed farther back into the rubbish chamber of outlived traditions.
James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)