Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The “Republic of Letters” and Jacob Spon

Avi Ohry
Tel Aviv, Israel

Jacob Spon. Via Wikimedia.

The European intellectual community in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was interested in establishing a metaphysical “Republic of Letters” (Res Publica Litterarum or Res Publica Literaria).1-2 It was to be “a great and swirling progression of learning”3 such as that in ancient Greece and function as a network of scholars and intellectuals who would communicate with one another from great distances by means of handwritten letters and manuscripts.4

Jacob (James or Jacques) Spon was one such proponent of the Republic of Letters. He was born in 1647 in Lyon, France, the son of a physician. He also became a physician, as well as an archeologist and scholar of Greek monuments. After studying medicine at Strasbourg, Paris, and Montpellier, he settled in Lyon and was a popular physician among the city’s wealthy citizens.

Spon also studied antiquity and traveled to Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the Levant in 1675–1676. He and his colleague, Sir George Wheler (1650–1723), were “among the first knowledgeable Western European antiquaries to see the antiquities of Greece at first hand. Spon’s book, Voyage d’Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grèce et du Levant (1678), remained a useful reference work even in the time of Chateaubriand, who employed it on his trip to the East.”4

Spon collected coins, inscriptions, and manuscripts. In 1680, he published his Histoire de la République de Genève. He is likely one of the first people to coin the term “archeology.” His medical contributions include a 1681 treatise on fevers Observations on fevers and febrifuges.

He died of tuberculosis in at Vevey, Canton of Vaud, Switzerland on Christmas Day, 1685, at the age of thirty-eight. A dissertation on the Spon medical family was published in 19055 and a short biography of Spon appears in Dictionnaire Historique de Me’dicins.6


  1. “Republic of Letters.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic_of_Letters.
  2. “The Greek Republic of Letters.” Libertarianism.org. https://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/greek-republic-letters.
  3. Dirk van Miert. “What was the Republic of Letters? A brief introduction to a long history (1417-2008).” University of Gronigen Press. https://ugp.rug.nl/groniek/article/view/27601/25014.
  4. “Jacob Spon.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Spon.
  5. Antoine Mollière. Une famille médicale lyonnaise au XVIIe siècle: Charles (1609-1684) et Jacob Spon (1647-1685). Lyon: A. Rey, 1905. 6. “Jacques Spon.” In Dictionnaire historique des Me’dicins, Larousse, edited by Michel Dupont, 1999, 533.
  6. “Jacques Spon.” In Dictionnaire historique des Me’dicins, Larousse, edited by Michel Dupont, 1999, 533.

AVI OHRY, MD, is married with two daughters. He is Emeritus Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Tel Aviv University, the former director of Rehabilitation Medicine at Reuth Medical and Rehabilitation Center in Tel Aviv, and a member of The Lancet‘s Commission on Medicine & the Holocaust. He conducts award-winning research in neurological rehabilitation, bioethics, medical humanities and history, and on long-term effects of disability and captivity. He plays the drums with three jazz bands.

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