Santorio's Medical Method

Santorio's Medical Method

​What started as a New Science in the early 1550s changed previous narratives of science as a field of research. Qualitative descriptions became less relevant than quantitative measurements and, most importantly, not as necessary as the theoretical foundations built upon medical data. This study investigates the pivotal role of Santorio’s medical writing, particularly in the Ars de statica medicina (Venice, 1614).

Santorio’s reputation as a reformer who introduced quantified measurements into medicine was built through publication, acknowledgment, and avowal from the scientific network and community of scholars in the early 1600s. The revolutionary mindset of the physician weighing himself, and recording ten thousand measurements from patients, was set forth with his book. By collecting data and theoretical reflection upon clinical experience, medical aphorisms found in Ars de statica medicina are an invaluable resource that connects numerical measurements to descriptive generalizations. While the narrative of the Scientific Revolution tends to present classical authorities as increasingly marginalized in scientific debates, strong connections exist between early modern medical theories and ancient sources.

Starting from the historical context presented by scholar Thomas Kuhn  so influential, that it inspired generations to investigate structures and patterns in scientific revolutions , I argue that the Scientific Revolution fits in a greater change in the epistemological background (Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1970). However, a paradigm shift and the change introduced into the medical community does not show epistemological differences if we consider the change introduced by Santorio in the early 1600s, or the change introduced by Asclepiades and narrated by Pliny the Elder (Pliny, Naturalis Historia VII, 124 “summa autem Asclepiadi Prusiensi condita nova secta . . . maxime sponsione facta cum fortuna, ne medicus crederetur, si umquam invalidus ullo modo fuisset ipse”).

Such cultural debt, which I see between classical authors and Santorio, also helps us understand the role of instruments and measurements in the shaping of a new scientific discourse. In fact, Santorio’s comments on diet, food absorption, and digestion provide an important case study in the network of medical opinions and practices in seventeenth-century Italy. By privileging observation and data analysis, scientists and doctors alike were in favor of empiricism and preferred clinical data, logbooks, and observations to textual foundations derived from Hippocrates, Galen, and Ibn Sina, to name a few of the ancient sources. In Crignon’s analysis of early modern British science, the relationship between scientists and books is central. Boyle, for example, “instead of conversing ‘with books’ and medical authorities, instead of practicing a ‘systematical way of writing,’ they should rather converse ‘with things themselves.’ In other words, it is necessary to define a kind of empiricism that would be able to ‘reintroduce philosophy inside medicine,’ a kind of inquiry into the nature of bodies that will not give up on the investigation into the causes of diseases. As a consequence, Boyle and others argue, it is necessary to read again the classical texts and to search for a figure other than Hippocrates. Such a new figure would need to be able to reactivate this investigation into the natural characteristics of ancient empiricism even though this genuine meaning of empiricism is (following Willis, Boyle or Nedham) now forgotten and lost” (Crignon 350-51).

Still, Santorio is a confounding case in early seventeenth century scientific literature because he used historical sources as a foundation for his numerical approach to medicine (see Grmek’s work on Santorio, “La maladie mesurée: l’apport de Santorio Santorio.” La revue du praticien Vol. 51, No. 18 (2001): 2009-012). Santorio is well known as someone who quantified scientific practice. Current research maintains that Santorio is “the pioneer father of quantitative medicine” and the inventor of scientific instruments, such as the thermoscope, the pulsilogium, and the wind device (see Grmek; Bigotti; Kuriyama 416 “He was also the first – and this surely is the most crucial point – to advance the key justification for this practice: to urge some vital connection between the numbers read off a scale and a person’s state of being”).

When conducting empirical and numerical observations, he justified these data through a reading of the classical medical authorities; some of that medical background knowledge was mediated by Alpini’s De medicina methodica (Book I, II, and III). First-hand experience became important in the seventeenth century, thus introducing paradigm shifts in the way scientists, and physicians too, would explore nature. In addition to that, the way early modern scholars presented their research results was also revolutionary.

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