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April 24, 1996

The Western Medical Tradition: 800 BC-1800 AD

Author Affiliations

Evansville, Ind

JAMA. 1996;275(16):1285-1286. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03530400073042

This article is only available in the PDF format. Download the PDF to view the article, as well as its associated figures and tables.


Like Andreas Vesalius, physicians today know that the way to be certain about knowledge is through "autopsia" or "seeing for oneself." This book continues the autopsic outlook by maintaining a sense of skepticism even about medical history itself. We learn here, for instance, that "far from being a rigid inheritance that passed from one distinguished medical man to another, European medicine in the premodern age demonstrates a remarkable flexibility and variety." By bringing the engaging details of this variety to general notice, the authors provide a "merciful release" from the "false past" presented by many previous medical historians.

One aspect of this false past is that many "traditions" have been made up, for instance, by doctors evoking other doctors. Galen, for example, may be regarded "as the inventor of the historical figure we think of as Hippocrates." Galen, a self-promoter whose worldwide medical reputation grew greater than that of any