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JAMA 100 Years Ago
April 18, 2001


Author Affiliations

JenniferReiling, Assistant Editor

JAMA. 2001;285(15):1935. doi:10.1001/jama.285.15.1935-JJY10009-2-1

We hear so much of the superiority of modern methods of investigation, of modern research and modern discoveries that we are apt to forget that there is a great debt owing some of the investigators of decades and even centuries ago. Not only did these men labor earnestly and carefully, but they often inculcated correct methods, and made many positive and permanent additions to knowledge. One is surprised to find, in reading Laennec, not only what acute clinical observations he made and how he correlated these with the results of painstaking autopsy findings, but how he, the pioneer of auscultation, worked out the subject in such a manner that comparatively little has been added to it in three-quarters of a century. Too little credit is given to the earlier workers; the thought of the present is constantly taken up with the wonderful discoveries of the recent past and the earnest search for the truths of the future. It is fitting, therefore, that our attention occasionally be directed backward. Prof. W. A. Locy has done this in an interesting article on Malpighi, Swammerdam and Leeuwenhoek.1 It must excite the admiration of all who read to learn how much was accomplished by these seventeenth century enthusiasts. The Italian not only left his name on a layer of the skin and certain structures in the spleen and kidney, and not only did he make important observations on the structure of the heart, the lung and glandular structures, "but he was the first to insist on the analogies of structure between organs throughout the animal kingdom, and to make extensive practical use of the idea that discoveries on simpler animals can be utilized in interpreting the similar structures in the higher ones." His monograph on the structure and metamorphosis of the silkworm, his work on the anatomy of plants and his labors in embryology stamp him as a skilled naturalist imbued with the true scientific spirit. And the same spirit is seen in the Hollanders, Swammerdam and Leeuwenhoek. The work of the former, especially his "Anatomy and Metamorphosis of Insects," is declared to be, in its descriptions, a model of accuracy and completeness. Leeuwenhoek, with his crude microscopes, yet careful observations of histologic structure in plants, man and the lower animals, contributed much to the stock of knowledge and aided in establishing scientific methods in place of the mystic and fantastic theorizing then in vogue. When we think of the limited opportunities, the poverty in suitable instruments, the simplicity of histologic technique, and the preconceived notions of anatomy and physiology tending to lead one astray toward theory and away from fact, the wonder is that they wrought so well and accomplished so much. It is good for us to pause occasionally and consider whether, after all, with our added facilities and advantages for work, we are so superior in methods, in scientific spirit and, relatively speaking, in results, to some of these master minds of long ago.