Medical Breakthroughs

Thomas Pettigrew's Medical Portrait Gallery (1838) housed in Historical Collections and Services, Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.

"The natural structure of the different parts of the human body has been very minutely examined, so that anatomy may be said to have arrived at a high pitch of perfection; but our knowledge of the changes of structure produced by disease, which may be called Morbid Anatomy, is still very imperfect."

-Matthew Baillie,The Morbid Anatomy of some of the most important parts of the Human Body, 1793, p vi.


The medical profession in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a growing and changing field. New concepts were continuously arising and experimentation constantly occurring. Scientists were testing and pushing the boundaries between life and death and discovering new and improved methods of diagnosis and treatments.

During the Enlightenment Era, scientific and industrial revolutions put forth a new standard of methodical investigation and discovery. Set procedures were introduced for researchers to follow as a way of making comparisons between recorded data and experiments.

Anatomical studies were done as a way of researching diseased structures. Giovanni Battista Morgagni laid the foundations for the concept of morbid anatomy in the eighteenth century. He was known as the "Father of Modern Pathology." Morgagni's work largely lies in his, "On the Seats and Causes of Diseases Investigated by Anatomy." It contains detailed descriptions of hundreds of cases, which he attended throughout the duration of his life. The work is comprised of 70 letters that describe about 700 cases, which was written to one of his contemporaries, but refined for publication. As the first work to establish the organ concept of disease, it is the foundation of modern pathological anatomy. Morgagni worked until his death in 1771 at the age of 89.

Thomas Pettigrew's Medical Portrait Gallery (1838) housed in Historical Collections and Services, Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.

Along with Morgagni was Matthew Baillie. Baillie published his piece, The Morbid Anatomy of some of the most important parts of the Human Body, which was the first of its kind outlining the subject of morbid anatomy. It established morbid anatomy as an independent science. Baillie gave the first clinical descriptions of gastric ulcer and chronic obstructive pulmonary emphysema and presented one of the clearest descriptions ever written on the pulmonary lesions of tuberculosis. His work was one of the first to solely address pathological changes in the body. Baillie continued his work into the nineteenth century until his death in 1823.

circa 1790

"Therefore having noticed that frog preparations which hung by copper hooks from the iron railings surrounding a balcony of our house contracted not only during thunder storms but also in fine weather, I decided to determine whether or not these contractions were due to the action of atmospheric electricity ... Finally ... I began to scrape and press the hook fastened to the back bone against the iron railing to see whether by such a procedure contractions might be excited, and whether instead of an alteration in the condition of the atmospheric electricity some other changes might be effective. I then noticed frequent contractions, none of which depended on the variations of the weather." -Galvani, on his experiments with electricity
In the late eighteenth century an Italian physician named Luigi Galvani performed one of the first experiments with nerve impulses through electrical charges. He was able to make a frog's muscles twitch by jolting them with a spark from an electrostatic machine. This advance was termed "animal electricity." 

Luigi's Laboratory circa 1791

Blundell's Gravitator
Pennsylvania State University Libraries,
Reproduction of an illustration from The Lancet, 1828-1829.

One nineteenth century physician from London, James Blundell, was troubled by the fact that numerous women during childbirth after suffering massive bleeding.

He then introduced an apparatus that he designed to transfuse blood from one person to another. In 1818 he transfused 10 patients for postpartum hemorrhaging.

These are only a handful of the numerous scientists who made considerable contributions to the world of medicine. Without these people who formed basic fundamentals of their fields of study, modern scientists and medical experts could not complete their work today. These eighteenth and nineteenth century explorers set the standards for today's world of science and medicine.

Yet, despite the numerous achievements these scientists had, they were often made fun of and mocked, often times through comedic illustrations and caricatures. To find out more about these mocking pieces of art, click on the "Stereotypes and Caricatures" link below.


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Copyright 2002: History 257 - Mount Holyoke College
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