[Humanist] 22.425 printing, medicine and self-knowledge

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jan 6 08:01:46 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 425.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 06 Jan 2009 06:57:52 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: printing, medicine and self-knowledge

In his remarkable catalogue, Dream Anatomy, to a U.S. National Library 
of Medicine exibition of the same name 
(www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/dreamanatomy/), Michael Sappol notes that 
Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) overturned many of the ideas of the great 
Greek physician Galen by dissecting human cadavers rather than animal, 
as Galen had done. Galen's ideas had been set down and communicated 
mostly in words, I suppose for the obvious reason that at the time there 
was no way to transmit much else reliably. The revolution in ideas about 
the body that Vesalius brought about was possible because very accurate 
drawings could be reproduced and accompanied by commentary thanks to the 
printing press. (This is essentially the same argumen that Eugene 
Ferguson makes about engineering in his book The Mind's Eye.)

Sappol begins his catalogue with the observation that all of us, however 
medically educated, if at all, carry around with us a mental map of the 
inside of our bodies. Most of us know the names of our organs and at 
least approximately where they are. The difference this makes to how we 
relate to the world is well brought out by the ecologist Paul Shepard in 
his remarkable book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human (1996). But, I 
suppose further, the degree to which our physiological self-knowledge 
was enhanced and intensified by the printing-press-enabled ideas of 
Vesalius must be very great indeed.

This is undoubtedly a point made at length by those who study book 
history. But Sappol's explication of Vesalius' importance does give us 
quite a persuasive example of how very simple facts have enormous 
consequences. Like many others I resist being content with access to 
resources as a subject for study. I want much more complex, analytically 
sophisticated phenomena to burrow into. But, again, what a difference 
simply having some important resource, such as JSTOR, makes!


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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