Book review: The Origins of Modern Science
Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, United Kingdom
Cover of The Origins of Modern Science: From Antiquity to the Scientific Revolution by Ofer Gal.
Science and medicine have long been intertwined: many advances in the field of medicine would not have been possible without prior knowledge of fundamental science. It is not surprising, therefore, that a medical historian would also find the history of science fascinating. In this book, Ofer Gal has described the origins of modern science from the time of antiquity until the seventeenth century, when the modern scientific revolution began.
The early sections of the book cover the contributions of Plato and Pythagoras, emphasizing the contributions of early mathematicians and philosophers; moves on to Parmenides and his critical way of thinking; and then to Aristotle’s contributions to science and human thought, such as the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire, which spread as far as China and India.
A history of astronomy and the cosmos leads to a discussion of early medieval scientists. A decline in Greek learning occurred during this period, which saw the burning of the famous library in Alexandria, Egypt. The role of magic and superstition in early scientific thought is explored, including a discussion of alchemy. The Church and other religious influences ruled the day. However, this era also saw the founding of universities such as in Bologna, Italy in 1088; Oxford, UK in 1096; Paris, France in 1150; and Cambridge, UK in 1209.
The Copernican Revolution and the role of Galileo and Kepler in the advancement of astronomy is well described. This was a time of proliferation of printing presses, books, libraries, and more universities.
The section on medicine and the body includes William Harvey’s contributions to the discovery of blood circulation published in his 1628 De Motu Cordis, a major medical advance of the era. Hippocrates’ corpus is, of course, discussed and the contributions of Galen are covered in some depth. Physicians’ therapeutic armamentarium was limited and included remedies with leeches and other herbs and compounds, which may have had a limited role in healing. Superstition and witchcraft is discussed, as well as the early development of surgery with the contributions of barber surgeons and midwives. We are given a description of Paracelsus’s important contributions to medicine, as well as the rise of anatomical knowledge with Vesalius and his 1543 De Humanis Corporis Fabrica, which heralded a new medical revolution that challenged established schools of thought, including Galen’s.
Thinkers like Descartes and Bacon, experimenters like Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton, and the birth of scientific organizations ushered in a new era. The Royal Society of London, founded in 1660 for the advancement and promotion of science, still remains an august and prestigious body of scientists whose Fellowship is coveted by the greatest scientific minds of the era.
This book is an excellent overview of the early history of science and covers the ideas and personalities of the time in a highly readable format. Particularly useful are the references, primary sources, and suggestions for further reading. It deserves to be well thumbed by all with an interest in the history of science and medicine.
The Origins of Modern Science: From Antiquity to the Scientific Revolution
Cambridge University Press, 2021
ARPAN K. BANERJEE, MBBS (LOND), FRCP, FRCR, FBIR, qualified in medicine at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham from 1995–2019. He served on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012–2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology from 2012–2017. He is Chairman of ISHRAD and adviser to Radiopaedia. He is the author/co-author of numerous papers and articles on a variety of clinical medical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books, including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology (2005) and The History of Radiology (OUP 2013).
Spring 2021 | Sections | Books & Reviews