This is indeed a very curious state of affairs in history. First, it is solemnly declared, that certain bulls and Papal documents were directed deliberately against the sciences of anatomy and chemistry by the Head of the Church, who wished to prevent the development of these sciences lest they should lessen his power over his people. Then, when it is shown that the documents in question have no such tenor, but are simple Papal regulations for the prevention of abuses which had arisen, and that they actually did accomplish much good for generations for which they were issued, the reply is not an acknowledgement of error, but an insistence on the previous declaration, somewhat in this form: “Well, the Popes may not have intended it, but these sciences, as a consequence of their decrees, did not develop, and the Popes must be considered as to blame for that.” Then, instead of showing that these sciences did not develop, this part is assumed and the whole case is supposed to be proved. Could anything well be more preposterous. And this is history!…

Since, however, an aspersion has been cast upon the progress of chemistry during the Middle Ages, and since it will surely be thought by many people that, if chemistry did not happen to interest mankind at that time, it must have been because the Pope was opposed to it (for such seems to be the curious chain of reasoning of certain scholars), it has seemed well to review briefly the story of chemistry during the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. More will be said about it in the chapter on Science at the Medieval Universities, and here the only idea is to bring out the fact that men were interested in what we now call chemical problems; that whatever interest they had was absolutely unhampered by ecclesiastical opposition; that indeed the very men who did the best work in this line, and their work is by no means without significance in the history of science, were all clergymen; and that most of them were in high favor with the Popes, and some of them have since received the honor of being canonized as saints.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

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After the story of the Papal Physicians, the most important phase of the relations of the Popes to the medical sciences is to be found in the story of the Papal Medical School. While it seems to be generally ignored by those who are not especially familiar with the history of medical education, a medical school existed in connection with the Papal University at Rome during many centuries–according to excellent authorities, from the beginning of the fourteenth century–and this medical school had, as we have said elsewhere, during nearly two centuries some of the most distinguished professors of medicine in its ranks, and boasts among its faculty some of the greatest discoverers in the medical sciences, and especially in anatomy. For these two centuries it had but two important rivals, Padua and Bologna. Both of these were in Italy, and one, that of the University of Bologna, was in a Papal city, that is, was under the political dominion of the Popes. The best medical teaching, then, was to be found in the Papal States and under conditions such, that if there had been the slightest opposition, or indeed anything but the most cordial encouragement for medical study, the medical schools of Rome and Bologna would surely have languished instead of flourishing beyond all others.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

There is another phase of his regulations with regard to medical schools which cannot but prove of the greatest interest to members of our present-day medical faculties. It has been realized for some time, that what is needed more than anything else to make good physicians for the present generation is that medical students should have a better preliminary education than has been the case in the past. In order to secure this, various states have required evidence of a certain number of years spent at high school or college before a medical student’s certificate allowing entrance into a medical school will be granted. Some of the most prominent medical schools have gone even farther than this, and have required that a degree in arts should be obtained in the undergraduate department before medical studies may be taken up. Something of this same kind was manifestly in Pope John’s mind when he required that seven years should have been spent at a university, at least three years of which should have been entirely devoted to medical studies, before the candidate might be allowed to go up for his examination for the doctor’s degree.

As we begin the twentieth century, we note that the presidents of our American universities are trying to secure just exactly the same number of years of study for candidates for the degree of Doctor of Medicine, as this medieval Pope insisted on as a prerequisite for the same degree in a university founded in the Papal States at the beginning of the fourteenth century. After the year 1910 most of the large universities in this country will not admit further students to their medical departments unless they have a college degree or its equivalent, that is, unless they have devoted four years to college undergraduate work. It is generally understood, that in the last year of his undergraduate course the student who intends to take up medicine may elect such scientific studies in the college department as will obtain for him an allowance of a year’s work in the medical school. He will then be able to complete his medical course in three years, so that our modern institutions will, if our plans succeed, require just exactly the same amount of time for the doctorate in Medicine as Pope John demanded, and not only demanded, but required by legal regulation, for this bull was a law in the Papal States, just six centuries ago. The coincidence is so striking that, only that it is supported by documentary evidence of the best kind, we could scarcely believe it.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

The documents that I shall quote in translations (the originals may be found in the appendix) will show that the Pope wanted the doctorates in philosophy and in medicine to be given only after seven years of study, at least four of which were to be devoted to the post-graduate work in the special branch selected. He wished, moreover, to insist on the necessity for preliminary education. He wanted the permission to teach these branches, which in that day was equivalent to our term of doctorate, to be given in all institutions for the same amount of work and after similar tests. These are just the matters that have occupied the thoughts of university presidents for the last quarter of a century, and have been the subjects of discussion in the meetings of various college and university associations. Pope John [XXII]’s bulls would be interesting documents to have read before such associations even at the present time, and would form excellent suggestive material on which the discussion of the necessity for maintaining college standards might well be founded…

All this will show John as really one of the greatest Popes not only in the century in which he lived, but as distinguished as only a comparatively small number have been among the successors of Peter. Though he ascended the Papal throne at the age of seventy, the next twenty years were full of work of all kinds, and John’s wonderful capacity for work stamps him as one of the great men of all time. It is a well-known rule, constantly kept in mind by Catholic students of history, that the Popes against whom the most objections are urged by non-Catholic historians are practically always found, on close and sympathetic study, to be striking examples of men who at least labored to accomplish much. As a rule, they strove to correct abuses, and as a consequence made bitter enemies, who left behind them many contemporary expressions of disapproval. Any contemporary authority is somehow supposed to be infallible. We forget, when a man tries to do good he is likely to meet with bitter opposition from many. If their expressions are taken seriously by historians who write with the purpose of finding just as little good and just as much evil as possible in a particular character, the resulting appreciation is likely to be rather far from the truth.  

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

At this time, during the first half of the sixteenth century, the Papal Medical School begins to assume an importance in the history of medicine which it was to continue to hold for the next two centuries. After the refoundation of the Sapienza by Pope Alexander VI., and its development under Pope Leo X., special care was taken and no expense spared by their successors, to secure the greatest teachers in anatomy in the world for the medical department of the Papal University. At this time all the great physicians were distinguished for their attainments in anatomy, somewhat as in the nineteenth century great physicians obtained their prestige by original work in pathology.

The situations in the two centuries had much more in common than the casual reader of history or even the ordinary student of medicine would appreciate. The list of Papal Physicians, then, becomes to a great extent the roll of the professors of anatomy at the Papal University Medical School. The Popes of this period were wise enough in their generation to realize that the men who devoted themselves to original research in increasing the knowledge of the human body, were also those likely to know most about the diseases of the body and their treatment. These scientific anatomists, with the chastening knowledge of the complexity of the human body before them, probably made less claims to power to cure diseases than many an enthusiastic therapeutist of the time, who thought, as have representatives of this specialty in every generation, that he has many infallible remedies for the cure of disease, though subsequent generations have not agreed with him.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

The custom of having for medical attendant one of the leading physicians of the day, if not actually the most prominent medical scientist of the time, which had obtained at Rome during the thirteenth century, was maintained at Avignon during the three-quarters of a century in which the Papal See had its seat there…The distinct tendency of the Popes to keep in touch with the best men in medicine and surgery in their time is well illustrated by the case of Guy de Chauliac. This great French surgeon and professor at the University of Montpelier is hailed by the modern medical world as the Father of Modern Surgery. There is no doubt at all of his intensely modern character as a teacher, nor of his enterprise as a progressive surgeon. Few men have done more for advance in medicine, and his name is stamped on a number of original ideas that have never been eclipsed in surgery. After studying anatomy very faithfully, especially by means of dissections, in Italy, where he tells us that his master at Bologna, Bertrucci, made a larger number of dissections scarcely more than thirty years after the supposed Papal decree of prohibition, he returned to Montpelier to become the professor of surgery there, and introduced the Italian methods of investigation into the famous old university.

At this time the Popes were at Avignon, not far distant from Montpelier. From them Guy received every encouragement in his scientific work. He insisted that no one could practice surgery with any hope of success unless he devoted himself to careful dissection of the human body. If we were to believe some of the things that have been said with regard to the Popes forbidding dissection, this should have been enough to keep the French surgeon from the favor of the Popes, but it did not. On the contrary, he was the intimate friend and consultant medical attendant of two of the Avignon Popes, and was the chamberlain to one of them. The good influence of Chauliac on the minds of the Popes is reflected in their interest in the medical department of the University of Montpelier. About this time Pope Urban VI. founded the College of Twelve Physicians at Montpelier. He was an alumnus of the university, and had been appealed to to enlarge the opportunities of his Alma Mater.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

With our rather complacent modern method of belittling the past and our disinclination to admit that the Spaniards were doing anything in science that the English Americans were not to think of for nearly two centuries, it would be easy to conclude that the teaching at these medical schools must have been altogether trivial and of no significance. When it is learned that most of the teaching was founded on Hippocrates and Galen some of our generation might think it hopelessly backward, but it would be well for those who think so, to be reminded that during the century following the sixteenth, Sydenham in England, and Boerhaave in Holland, the most distinguished medical men of their time who are deservedly looked up to with great reverence by most of the distinguished teachers of ours, were both of them pleading for a return to the broad, sane views and insistence on clinical observation of Hippocrates and Galen. As a matter of fact the medical schools of both the University of Mexico and of Lima were furnishing quite as good a medical training as the average medical school of Europe at that time. They were modelled closely after the Spanish universities and were in intimate relations with them, even exchanging professors and students, and at the middle of the seventeenth century at least maintaining excellent standards.

From the very beginning, then, the Spanish Americans made a definite attempt to develop scientific knowledge in America. In medicine, in botany, in pharmacology, as well as in geography, philology, ethnology, and anthropology, there are magnificent contributions made by Spanish scholars. Many a Spanish university student and teacher spent time in this country investigating the properties of plants, especially their relations to medicine, and laying precious foundations in botany. Besides there were university scholars at home in Spain taking advantage of these field investigations to compile works of serious character which are well known by those who are familiar with the history of botany and pharmacology. What the Spaniards were doing in America the Portuguese were doing in India and South Africa, and a very serious attempt was made during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to bring to Europe every possible material, plant or mineral, that might be of value for human health and at the same time to increase the bounds of human knowledge by careful investigation.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

For Americans it is very probable that the chapter in the history of science which will demonstrate most clearly that there was not only no opposition on the part of the Popes or the Church authorities to the teachings of science or its development, but on the contrary encouragement and patronage, in spite of our English traditions to the contrary, is that which gives even very briefly the story of the evolution of science and its teaching on the American continent. Notwithstanding the very prevalent impression, indeed we might say the practically universal persuasion, that there was nothing worth while talking about in any department of education in America before the nineteenth century, except what little there was in the English colonies, and while it is confidently assumed that above all science received no attention from our Southern neighbors, Spanish America not only surpassed English America in education, but far outdistanced English America in what was accomplished for scientific research and the evolution of the knowledge of a large number of scientific subjects in a great many ways.

Even those among us who thought themselves well read in American history have, as a rule, known almost nothing of this until comparatively recent years. Professor Bourne of Yale, whose untimely death deprived the United States of a distinguished historical scholar, was the first to point out emphatically how far ahead of the English were the Spanish colonies in every mode of education, but particularly in the cultivation of science…

Two Spanish-American universities were founded under Papal charters almost a full century before Harvard as our first small college in English America began its career. Harvard was not to be a university in any proper sense of the term for a full century and a half after its foundation, while the universities of Mexico and Peru, largely under the influence of the ecclesiastical authorities and owing nearly everything to Church patronage under the Spanish Crown, had all the essential university faculties before the close of the sixteenth century. In spite of the predominant Church influence, which, if we were to credit former English traditions, must have been fatal to the evolution of science, Professor Bourne’s researches show that in the sixteenth century the Spanish-American universities were already doing such scientific work as the students in English America became interested in only during the nineteenth century.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

I would not wish to produce the impression, however, that Italy was the only place in Europe in which dissections were freely done during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There is no doubt that anatomy and surgery and every branch of medicine was cultivated much more assiduously and with much better opportunities provided for students down in Italy, than anywhere else in the world. This of itself alone shows the utter absurdity of the declarations that the Church was opposed to medical progress in any way, since the nearer the center of Christendom, the more ardor there was for investigation and the more liberty to pursue original researches. Other countries also began to wake up to the spirit of progress in medical education that was abroad. In France there were two centers of interest in anatomy. One of these was at Montpelier, the other at Paris. It is interesting to note, however, that the men to whom anatomical progress is due at these universities obtained their training, or at least had taken advantage of the special opportunities provided for anatomical investigation to be had, in the Italian cities. Guy de Chauliac I have already mentioned. He is spoken of as the Father of Modern Surgery, and there is no doubt that he did much to set surgery on a very practical basis and to make anatomy a fundamental feature of the training for it. He declared that it was absurd to think that surgeons could do good work unless they knew their anatomy.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

The second quotation shows, in fact, that Mondino had the custom sometimes of boiling his bodies before dissecting them when he wished to demonstrate special features, and he promises to make such an anatomy for his students at another time. If the bull of Pope Boniface VIII. was misinterpreted in any way to prohibit dissection, this would surely be the practice supposed to fall under its provisions. Here we find Mondino, less than twenty years after the promulgation of the bull, writing about this very practice, however, and calmly suggesting that he follows it as a routine, in a book that was published without let or hindrance from the ecclesiastical authorities, and that became for the next two centuries the most used book in the teaching of anatomy in educational institutions that were directly under ecclesiastical authorities. If the bull was misinterpreted so as to forbid dissection, as has been said, surely this flagrant violation of it would not have been permitted. It is clear that, if there was a misinterpretation, it must have come later in the history of anatomy. But of that we shall find no trace any more than at this time.

At the present moment such formal permissions are required quite as much in all civilized countries as they were during the Middle Ages. In certain parts of the United States a bond has to be filed by applicants before permission to dissect will be given. Dissection is recognized generally as a practice that needs definite regulation. Without such regulation all sorts of abuses would creep in. During the Middle Ages popular feeling was all against dissection. It was difficult, in many places, for the university authorities to obtain permission for dissection from their immediate political rulers. As a consequence of this they reverted to the theory, very generally accepted at that time, that the university was independent of the political authorities of the place in which it was situated, in educational matters, and an appeal was made directly to the ecclesiastical authorities for permission to dissect, as coming under their jurisdiction in education. They had thus obtained many other educational privileges that would not have been allowed them by municipalities, and they were successful also in this. Anyone who knows the details of the struggle of the universities to maintain the rights of their students and faculties against the encroachments of municipal and state authorities, will appreciate how much this possibility of appeal to the Pope meant for the universities of that time.

The permission to dissect was only another, but a very striking example, of ecclesiastical authority granting privileges to universities beyond those which they could have obtained from the local governments under which they existed. Such permissions, far from showing that the Popes were hampering or prohibiting dissection, prove, on the contrary, that they were securing for educational institutions what local popular prejudice would not have allowed them. That this is the proper way to view this question will be best appreciated by a review of the history of anatomy during the two centuries and a half in which ecclesiastical authorities are said to have prevented or discouraged its development. From this it will be seen very clearly that the nearer to Rome the medical schools were, the more dissection was done in them; that dissection was most common in Rome, at least during the latter part of this period; that the golden age of anatomy developed most luxuriantly in Bologna when that was a Papal city, and in Rome itself; and that in general the Popes must be looked upon as having fostered and patronized the medical sciences and anatomy in every possible way, while there is not the slightest hint anywhere to be found of the ecclesiastical opposition that is supposed to have dominated these centuries of medical history.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)