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History and a medical renaissance

Historians like to bend epochs around major events. Pearl Harbor. JFK. 911.

Such was the subject of a research year I spent on the Bubonic Plague which killed half of Europe in the year 1348. Some historians say the Plague — the “Black Death” — ended the medieval “dark” ages and gave birth to the Renaissance. Other scholars argue that it demonstrated the resilience of medieval institutions despite catastrophe.

After poring over countless manuscripts and wondering mainly about the impact on the development of medical thought, I came away with some different conclusions that are relevant to today’s current pandemic.

What I concluded (and, if I ever get enough time, hope to put into a book someday) is that an actual “renaissance” in anatomical, surgical, and medical discovery had already been going on in Italy and southern France in the early 1300s, many years before the bubonic plague. Just like the artists of the later “renaissance,” physicians and surgeons practicing on the “front lines,” were testing theories in the natural world — contradicting superstitions and dogma from medieval tradition — luminaries like Mondino di Liuzzi were publishing anatomical treatises and medical works that were shattering old belief system. They learned the art of bedside medicine and rediscovered the benefit of actually “laying on of hands” — examining a patient, which seems so natural now, had not been a job of educated medieval doctors.

Of course, when the plague hit, it preferentially killed these bed-side physicians and surgeons who were advancing the field of medicine while sparing those physicians who based their scientific theories on superstitions and consulting astrological signs and charts — “physicians” who never touched, much less examined, a patient.

The Italian renaissance of art and literature may have followed shortly after the plague with Petrarch, Giotto, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. But there was a medical renaissance that had already begun in the early 1300s, and that was shut down abruptly when the disease killed those practitioners on the front lines who were creating it; it wasn’t until 200 years later that Andre Vesalius rediscovered anatomical science (although Leonardo Da Vinci did as well some years earlier, but only did so in secret). The Italian Renaissance did not include a renaissance in the medical arts.

Now, like then, frontline heroes are also dying. But science is more robust, and today’s heroes are collecting data, collaborating worldwide, and publishing daily. What we knew a week ago is replaced by what we know now. The medical/scientific community of the world is coming together in a way I have never seen before in my career. I believe that the difference between then and now is that science will unite us and lead us out of this pandemic rather than the opposite, which happened in the 14th century.

During the plague, there was superstition and racism. Whole towns held mass burnings of Jews or lepers as scapegoats to appease God’s supposed wrath and stop the plague; we see dangerous parallels in the “Chinese Plague.” In 1348, some went around flagellating themselves, believing this would appease God. There was hoarding and looting and stealing and extorting. There was, like now, inaction, denial, and shirking of responsibility by those in power.

There were mistakes made in the present also: CDC test failure and our federal government’s initial underestimation may have led to needless death, but right now it’s more harmful to dwell on that instead of moving forward. Especially when we, the people, have much work to do and we have yet to decide how history will bend us around this catastrophe.


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