Sir Francis Bacon’s overlooked contributions

Yvette Koepke
North Dakota, United States


Portrait of Francis Bacon
Frans Pourbus, 1617
Palace on the Water in Warsaw, Poland

An accurate investigation of human anatomy—embodied in Vesalius’ watershed images—has long been considered the origin of modern Western scientific medicine. Disease, by contrast, comes to figure prominently in this history only much later, with the development of the germ theory in the late nineteenth century. Though a clear milestone, the germ theory does not mark the beginnings of the modern concept of disease. Reading Sir Francis Bacon shows the seventeenth-century emergence of a scientific understanding of physiological disease distinct from the individualized, experiential dis-ease associated with the “Galenic” humoral theory that had dominated intellectual thought for centuries. Insofar as this aspect of his scholarship has been largely overlooked, it forces a reevaluation of Bacon’s work and a recognition of the centrality of theories of the material human body to science and medicine, as well as offering some insight into major issues in contemporary scientific medicine.

Despite his status as the self-proclaimed “Father of Science” credited with the development of the “scientific method,” Bacon does not feature in the standard history of medicine. He never practiced medicine and consistently questioned the validity and usefulness of the increasingly crucial practice of anatomical dissection. The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605) critiques anatomy’s focus on standardized structures instead of “the diversities of the parts,” and especially its neglect “of the footsteps and impression of diseases” (1.123) whereby it lacks the charitable application to living bodies modeled in the medical focus of his scientific utopia New Atlantis. Thus medicine’s first deficiency “is the discontinuance of the ancient and serious diligence of Hippocrates, who used to set down a narrative of the special cases of his patients, and how they proceeded, and how they were judged by recovery or death” (1.122).

Bacon’s position here is not just a historical curiosity, but a central concern that shapes his profoundly influential theorization of science. The New Organon’s (1620) landmark proclamation is well known: “as yet we are but lingering in the outer courts of nature, nor are we preparing ourselves a way into her inner chambers [. . .] a way must be opened and laid out” (382). Bacon’s own “preparing” of that “way,” though, has been overlooked. Immediately following, he challenges anatomy for ignoring the “latent configurations” of bodies, then advocates the “way”—namely, to “inquire what amount of spirit there is in every body” (383)—and details inquisitions into their properties. Bacon later devotes an entire volume, the little-known History of Life and Death, to this study.

History instructs physicians to pursue longevity through scientific research into spirits. The text’s publication and method signal its importance to the Baconian project. Bacon decided to move up its publication “in respect of the prime use thereof” (History 272), and completed it while New Atlantis remained unfinished. History contains the most research in Bacon’s corpus, and is far more organized according to his own methods than his other empirical work, Sylva Sylvarum, moving from the collected data or “History” to “Observations” within each topic to achieve an overall list of “Canons.” The original Latin text excited enough interest among intellectuals to occasion a spurious translation, prompting the complete publication, History Natural and Experimental of Life and Death: or, Of the Prolongation of Life, in the 1676 tenth edition of Sylva, which also included Atlantis.

In keeping with his strict separation of natural and supernatural in order to define what we now accept as “science,” Bacon insists on a material and thus decidedly modern model of physiological processes. Spirits, which before Bacon had most often been understood in quasi-religious terms as intimately linked with the soul, are for Bacon “infinitely material in nature”: “spirits are nothing else but a natural body, rarified to a proportion, and included in the tangible parts of bodies, as in an integument” (Sylva 1.98). This is no minor point for Bacon. Indeed, although Sylva’s table of contents reads “Of the spirits, or pneumaticals in bodies,” Bacon entitles this entry “Experiment solitary touching the secret processes of nature.” At stake, then, in his conception of spirits is nothing less than the motive force for the whole of science.

Bacon strips aging and death of moral and religious implications, insisting on a purely physical process caused by spirits:

[The] cause of termination of Life is this, for that the Spirits, like a gentle flame, continually preying upon Bodies, conspiring with the outward Air, which is ever sucking and drying of them, do, in time, destroy the whole Fabrick of the Body, as also the particular Engines and Organs thereof and make them unable for the work of Reparation (History 274).

We can trace a similar approach in the contemporary pathologizing of aging and death via mechanisms of oxidation. For Bacon, though, even resurrection becomes scientific: Canon XIX asserts that “Youthful Spirits inserted into an old Body, might soon turn Natures course back again.” Immortality is indeed within science’s grasp once the body is utterly material: in youth, “all things” are “repaired entirely; nay, they are for a time increased in quantity, bettered in quality, so as the Matter of reparation might be eternal, if the Manner of reparation did not fail” (History 273).

New Atlantis (1627) depicts the strides that Baconian science could make toward this end. The human body both structures the description of the ideal research institution of Salomon’s House and provides the experimental standard. The narrative employs a two-part structure derived from the body itself: the first section focuses on body function, whereas the second groups experiments by senses. Lists of laboratory uses dominate the paragraphs, with strings of items demonstrating the sheer copiousness of endless medical applications striving toward longevity. Caves are used “for curing of some diseases and for prolongation of life” (448). Baths and wells produce “Water of Paradise, being, by what we do to it, made very sovereign for health and prolongation of life” (449). Plants are “ordered” to “become of medicinal use” (450). Animals are used for

dissections and trials, that thereby we may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man. Wherein we find many strange effects: as continuing life in them, though divers parts which you account vital, be perished and taken forth; resuscitating of some that seem dead in appearance; and the like. We try also all poisons and other medicines upon them, as well of chirurgery as physic. (450)

This recitation makes clear that the famous plan of Salomon’s House, “the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (447), is to maximize life. The narrative follows a double progression, first ascending from inanimate through complex creatures, and second through a series of more profound manipulations. This doubled structure suggests implementation of similar techniques across the spectrum of material bodies. Crucially, Bacon’s theorization of spirits—common matter shared by “all tangible bodies”—enables scientific research, just as common biochemical building blocks support basic science and animal trials today. Thus the paragraph following the creation of lesser animals moves on to the “making” of humans by “divers drinks, breads, and meats, rare and of special effects” (450). Although less spectacular than the techniques used for animals, the established pattern portends the future application of such supreme manipulations to humans.

New Atlantis shows science’s overarching purpose to be “that whereunto man’s nature doth most aspire, which is immortality or continuance” (Proficience 260). Longevity conjoins the two ultimate goals of Baconian science, power and charity: physicians would become “Coadjutors and Instruments of the Divine Omnipotence and Clemency in Prolonging and Renewing the Life of Man,” which would be a “continuation of Works of Charity” (History 273). A lengthy list printed immediately following New Atlantis reinforces this goal. Foremost is a group of medical manipulations: “The prolongation of life: the restitution of youth in some degree: the retardation of age: the curing of disease counted incurable: the mitigation of pain” (1.237). The same goal informs Bacon’s curious obsession with diet. He values diet not as the righteous way of life described by humoral handbooks like Sir Thomas Elyot’s popular Castel of Helthe, but for the quantity of bodily change it is able to effect: “Curing of Diseases is effected by Temporary Medicines; but Lengthening of Life requireth Observation of Diets” (History 333). Dietary manipulations therefore occupy three times the space of medicines in the account of Salomon’s House. Far from a personal idiosyncrasy or a vestige of humoral thinking, Bacon’s “receipts” center either on specific diseases (e.g., gout) or longevity instead of purging humors and can better be viewed in terms of contemporary emphasis on healthy lifestyle. These recipes actually signal the move away from humoral theory: they reduce diet from a regimen encompassing almost all aspects of life to its modern sense of the physiological effects of food.

Bacon’s work elaborates a new material body inseparable from the new science commonly attributed to him, regardless of our dismissal of the existence of spirits. Bacon locates humans squarely within nature. Science—in particular, its pursuit of longevity—and not the body’s providential design betokens divinity: “For though we Christians do continually aspire and pant after the Land of Promise; yet it will be a token of God’s favour towards us in our journyings through this Worlds Wilderness, to have our shoes and Garments (I mean those of our frail Bodies) little worn or impaired” (History 272). The body is reduced from the divine reflection of its maker to a set of clothes, infinitely manipulable material objects. The countless, seemingly excessive manipulations of Salomon’s House depend on and celebrate this materiality. Moreover, they locate value in quantity, whether amount or diversity. Bacon reconceptualizes the body in terms of its amount of life, amount of spirit, in contrast with humoral theory’s exacting attention to the quality of life as inscribed on the body. Disease or a failure of function, rather than humoral dis-ease, threatens the Baconian body.

Bacon thus shares modern medicine’s concern with “paths to Mortal Life” (History 302), instead of the moral life that informed humoral theory. In place of the humoral hierarchy that analogically mirrors the macrocosm, Bacon classifies body parts as more or less “easily repairable” (History 274). He strips dietary regimen of moral implications interwoven with conventional medical understandings. For instance, he rejects the superiority of temperance as balance, for it neither “wasteth the body less” nor “repaireth more” (History 299). The body is understood not in terms of mixture, gradations and balances, but straightforward quantity: function, loss of function; life, death. The focus shifts from standards of good to physical standards, namely health and longevity. Bacon asserts quantification as the evaluative standard of human bodies, similar to modern medicine’s reliance on measurable laboratory values or the general understanding of conditions like “stress” or pain in terms of amount. Quantity of spirit determines health, instead of the qualities—of humors, of foods, of behaviors—painstakingly analyzed by humoral regimens of diet.

Recognizing the significance of conceptualizations of disease impacts our understanding of Bacon’s work, as well as of the integrated development of medicine and science. But it can also offer insight into contemporary professional and ethical issues within scientific medicine. Let me briefly sketch two such issues. First, two major models within American medicine present conflicting views of medical practice roughly corresponding with scientific and clinical: evidence-based medicine (cost management) focuses on the bodily disease, while patient-centered medicine (consumer satisfaction) focuses on the experience of illness. The ways that Bacon rethinks materiality offer potential alternatives to this often damaging opposition. In particular, Bacon’s emphasis on holistic physiology via diet and lifestyle suggests avenues of scientific manipulation that incorporate patient empowerment. Second, much debate over resource management and end-of-life decision-making posits an inherent physician duty to preserve life. Though this duty is rarely challenged, when it is contextualized, most commonly its origin is located in the Hippocratic tradition. This limited view positions this duty as a clinical and moral one without considering how it may also be an ethic embedded within the historical development of science itself—an ethic thereby opened to critique.



  1. Bacon, Francis. The history natural and experimental of life and death, or, Of the prolongation of life. In Sylva Sylvarum, 10th ed. Published by William Rawley. 1676. Rare Book Collection, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
  2. —. New Atlantis. In Francis Bacon: A Selection of His Works. Edited by Sidney Warhaft. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1982.
  3. —. The New Organon. In Francis Bacon: A Selection of His Works. Edited by Sidney Warhaft. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1982.
  4. —. The Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Human. In The Works of Francis Bacon. Edited by Robert Ellis and James Spedding. London: H. Bryer, 1803.
  5. —. Sylva Sylvarum. In The Works of Francis Bacon. Edited by Robert Ellis and James Spedding. London: H. Bryer, 1803.



YVETTE KOEPKE, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of North Dakota. A specialist in early modern British literature and culture as well as critical theory trained in the Medical Scholars Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she has worked in medical humanities through pedagogy and research. Her teaching has ranged from first-year health sciences undergraduates to medical students. Her writing has appeared in Literature and Medicine, Academic Medicine, and Patient Education and Counseling.


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