Carrier Critique #4: Bible & Disease & Medicine

Carrier Critique #4: Bible & Disease & Medicine March 31, 2022

+ Medical Advances Made in the Christian-Dominated Middle Ages

Richard Carrier (born in 1969), a former Protestant atheist, is, according to Wikipedia, “an American historian, author, and activist, whose work focuses on empiricism, atheism, and the historicity of Jesus [he’s a “mythicist”]. A long-time contributor to self-published skeptical web sites, including The Secular Web and Freethought Blogs, Carrier has published a number of books and articles on philosophy and religion in classical antiquity, discussing the development of early Christianity from a skeptical viewpoint, and concerning religion and morality in the modern world. He has publicly debated a number of scholars on the historical basis of the Bible and Christianity. . . . In 2008, Carrier received a doctorate in ancient history from Columbia University, where he studied the history of science in antiquity.”


I’m responding to a portion of Carrier’s article, “Science Then: The Bible vs. The Greeks Edition” (11-30-15). His words will be in blue.

For a general explanation of the Bible in relation to science (a topic endlessly distorted by atheists and other Bible skeptics), see the statements from Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm, in his classic, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, by the Baptist Bernard Ramm (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1954). I collected them in my previous reply to Richard Carrier: Carrier Critique #3: Bible Teaches a Flat Earth?

Carrier has a section on germs and the biblical discussions of various practices of cleanliness, etc. Of course he mocks the Bible and has a field day with that.

[I]t would be impressive if the text actually explained the germ theory of disease, . . .  Not one word is said in that chapter of Leviticus about disease in general (much less wound care, where this would be especially important). The Jewish idea of uncleanness is about spiritual infection, not biological. . . . 

All absurdities. This is massively ignorant of any science of disease. 

Here is my reply regarding these matters, before I get to my main topic. The Bible Ask site has an article, “Did the Bible teach the germs theory?” (5-30-16):

The Bible writers did not write a medical textbook. However, there are numerous rules for sanitation, quarantine, and other medical procedures (found in the first 5 book of the OT) . . . Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818 –1865), who was a Hungarian physician, . . . proposed the practice of washing hands with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 . . . He published a book of his findings in Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. Despite various publications of his successful results, Semmelweis’s suggestions were not accepted by the medical community of his time.

Why was Semmelweis research rejected? Because germs were virtually a foreign concept for the Europeans in the middle-19th-century. . . .

Had the medical community paid attention to God’s instructions that were given 3000 years before, many lives would have been saved. The Lord gave the Israelites hygienic principles against the contamination of germs and taught the necessity to quarantine the sick (Numbers 19:11-12). And the book of Leviticus lists a host of diseases and ways where a person would come in contact with germs (Leviticus 13:46).

Germs were no new discovery in 1847. And for this fact, Roderick McGrew testified in the Encyclopedia of Medical History: “The idea of contagion was foreign to the classic medical tradition and found no place in the voluminous Hippocratic writings. The Old Testament, however, is a rich source for contagionist sentiment, especially in regard to leprosy and venereal disease” (1985, pp. 77-78).

Some other interesting facts regarding the Bible and germ theory:

1. The Bible contained instructions for the Israelites to wash their bodies and clothes in running water if they had a discharge, came in contact with someone else’s discharge, or had touched a dead body. They were also instructed about objects that had come into contact with dead things, and about purifying items with an unknown history with either fire or running water. They were also taught to bury human waste outside the camp, and to burn animal waste (Num 19:3-22; Lev. 11:1-4715:1-33; Deut 23:12).

2. Leviticus 13 and 14 mention leprosy on walls and on garments. Leprosy is a bacterial disease, and can survive for three weeks or longer apart from the human body. Thus, God commanded that the garments of leprosy victims should be burned (Lev 13:52).

3. It was not until 1873 that leprosy was shown to be an infectious disease rather than hereditary. Of course, the laws of Moses already were aware of that (Lev 13, 14, 22; Num 19:20). It contains instructions about quarantine and about quarantined persons needing to thoroughly shave and wash. Priests who cared for them also were instructed to change their clothes and wash thoroughly. The Israelites were the only culture to practice quarantine until the 19th century, when medical advances discovered the biblical medical principles and practices.

4. Hippocrates, the “father of medicine” (born 460 BC), thought “bad air” from swampy areas was the cause of disease.

See also: “Old Testament Laws About Infectious Diseases.”

[T]he only actual disease ever mentioned in the Bible is leprosy. The Bible has no other knowledge of distinct diseases. . . . And nowhere does the Bible express any awareness that nearly every disease it records symptoms of has a cure. . . . 

For wound care, even pre-Biblical Egyptians and Sumerians (and then the Greeks and Romans who inherited this knowledge) knew how to reduce infection with antibiotic agents (honey) and sealants (grease) and disinfectants (vinegar and turpentine, as well as premixed wine, which had a high alcohol content). You don’t find this knowledge in the Bible. And the Egyptians didn’t learn it from ghosts or space aliens. They just figured it out—by luck, trial and error, and rudimentary observation. 

The entry on “Health” in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology reveals that ordinary medicinal remedies were widely practiced in Bible times. There wasn’t solely a belief that sin or demons caused all disease. There was also a natural cause-and-effect understanding:

Ordinary means of healing were of most diverse kinds. Balm ( Gen 37:25 ) is thought to have been an aromatic resin (or juice) with healing properties; oil was the universal emollient ( Isa 1:6 ), and was sometimes used for wounds with cleansing wine ( Luke 10:34 ). Isaiah recommended a fig poultice for a boil ( 38:21 ); healing springs and saliva were thought effectual ( Mark 8:23 ; John 5 ; 9:6-7 ). Medicine is mentioned ( Prov 17:22 ) and defended as “sensible” ( Sirach 38:4). Wine mixed with myrrh was considered sedative ( Mark 15:23 ); mint, dill, and cummin assisted digestion ( Matt 23:23 ); other herbs were recommended for particular disorders. Most food rules had both ritual and dietary purposes, while raisins, pomegranates, milk, and honey were believed to assist restoration. . . .

Luke’s constant care of Paul reminds us that nonmiraculous means of healing were not neglected in that apostolic circle. Wine is recommended for Timothy’s weak stomach, eye-salve for the Thyatiran church’s blindness (metaphorical, but significant).

Doctors today often note how the patient’s disposition and attitude has a strong effect on his health or recovery. The mind definitely influences the body. Solomon understood this in several of his Proverbs: written around 950 BC (Prov 14:30; 15:30; 16:24; 17:22).

The Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 5:23 (RSV) says: “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”

The 1915 International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (“Disease; Diseases”) stated:

The types of disease which are referred to in the Bible are those that still prevail. Fevers of several kinds, dysentery, leprosy, intestinal worms, plague, nervous diseases such as paralysis and epilepsy, insanity, ophthalmia and skin diseases are among the commonest and will be described under their several names.

“Medicine” from the same work:

“Balm of Gilead” is said to be an anodyne (Jeremiah 8:22; compare Jeremiah 51:8). The love-fruits, “mandrakes” (Genesis 30:14) and “caperberry” (Ecclesiastes 12:5 margin), myrrh, anise, rue, cummin, the “oil and wine” of the Good Samaritan, soap and sodic carbonate (“natron,” called by mistake “nitre”) as cleansers, and Hezekiah’s “fig poultice” . . .

The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (James Strong and John McClintock; Harper and Brothers; New York; 1880), in its article “Medicine” (a huge article I only partially cite) details all sorts of maladies and possible remedies that Carrier claims the Bible knows nothing about:

Diseases are also mentioned as ordinary calamities; e.g. the sickness of old age, headache (perhaps by sunstroke), as that of the Shunammite’s son, that of Elisha, and that of Benhadad, and that of Joram (Ge 48:11Sa 30:132Ki 4:202Ki 8:29,292Ki 13:142Ch 22:6).

2. Among special diseases mentioned in the Old Test. are, ophthalmia (Ge 29:17, מכִלּוֹת עֵנִיַם)., . . . It may occasion partial or total blindness (2Ki 6:18). The eye-salve (κολλύριον, Re 3:18; Hor. Sat. i) was a remedy common to Orientals, Greeks, and Romans . . . Other diseases are- barrenness of women, which mandrakes were supposed to have the power of correcting (Ge 20:18; comp. 12:17; 30:1, 2, 14-16); “consumption,” and several, the names of which are derived from various words, signifying to burn or to be hot (Le 26:16De 28:22SEE FEVER; . . .

The diseases rendered “scab” and “scurvy” in Le 21:20Le 22:22De 28:27, may be almost any skin-disease, such as those known under the names of lepra, psoriaris, pityriasis, icthyosis, favus, or common itch. . . . The “running of the reins” (Le 15:2, :3 ; 22:4, marg.) may perhaps mean gonorrhoea, or more probably blennorrhcea (mucous discharge). If we compare Nu 25:1Nu 31:7, with Jos 22:17, there is ground for thinking that some disease of this class ‘derived from polluting sexual intercourse, remained among the people . . .

In De 28:65 it is possible that a palpitation of the heart is intended to be spoken of (comp. Ge 45:26). In Mr 9:17: (comp. Lu 9:38) we have an apparent case of epilepsy, shown especially in the foaming, falling, wallowing, and similar violent symptoms mentioned; this might easily be a form of demoniacal manifestation. The case of extreme hunger recorded in 1 Samuel 14 was merely the result of exhaustive fatigue; but it is remarkable that the bulimia of which Xenophon speaks (Anab. iv 5, 7); was remedied by an application in which “honey” (compr.; 1Sa 14:27) was the chief ingredient.

Besides the common injuries of wounding, bruising, striking out eye, tooth, etc., we have in Ex 21:22 the case of miscarriage produced by a blow, push, etc., damaging the foetus. . . .

The “withered hand” of Jeroboam (1Ki 13:4-6), and of the man (Mt 12:10-13; comp. Lu 6:10), is such an effect as is known to follow from the obliteration of the main artery of any member, or from paralysis of the principal nerve, either through disease or through injury. . . . The case of the widow’s son restored by Elisha (2Ki 4:19), was probably one of sunstroke. The disease of Asa” in his feet” (Schmidt, Biblischer Med. 3:5, 2), which attacked him in his old age (1Ki 15:232Ch 16:12), and became exceeding great, may have been either adema, dropsy, or podagra, gout. . . .

In I Macc. 6:8, occurs a mention of “sickness of grief;” in Ecclus. 37:30, of sickness caused by excess, which require only a passing mention. The disease of Nebuchadnezzar has been viewed by Jahn as a mental and purely subjective malady. It is not easy to see how this satisfies the plain, emphatic statement of Da 4:33, which seems to include, it is true, mental derangement, but to assert a degraded bodily state to some extent, and a corresponding change of habits. . . .

The palsy meets us in the New Test. only, and in features too familiar to need special remark. The words “grievously tormented” (Mt 8:6) have been commented on by Baier (De Paral. p. 32), to the effect that examples of acutely painful paralysis are not wanting in modern pathology, e.g. when paralysis is complicated with neuralgia. But if this statement be viewed with doubt, we might understand the Greek expression (βασανιζόμενος) as used of paralysis agitans, or even of chorea (StVitus’s dance), in both of which the patient, being never still for a moment save when asleep, might well be so described. The woman’s case who was “bowed together” by ” a spirit of infirmity” may probably have. been paralytic (Lu 13:11). If the dorsal muscles were affected, those of the chest and abdomen, from want of resistance, would undergo contraction, and thus cause the patient to suffer as described. . . .

For the use of salt to a new-born infant, Eze 16:4; comp. Galen, De Sanit. lib. i, cap. 7. . . .

The’ “roller to bind” of Eze 30:21 was for a broken limb, as still used. . . .

Ex 30:5-23 is a prescription in form. It may be worth while also to enumerate the leading substances which, according to Wunderbar, composed the pharmacopeia of the Talmudists-a much more limited one which will afford some insight into the distance which separates them from the leaders of Greek medicine. Besides such ordinary appliances as water, wine (Lu 10:34), beer, vinegar, honey, and milk, various oils are found; as opobalsamim (” balm of Gilead”), the oil of olive, myrrh, rose, palma christi, walnut, sesamum, colocynth, and fish; figs (2Ki 20:7), dates, apples (Song 2:5), pomegranates, pistachio-nuts, and almonds (a produce of Syria, but not of Egypt, Ge 43:11); wheat, barley, and various other grains; garlic, leeks, onions, and some other common herbs; mustard, pepper, coriander seed, ginger, preparations of beet, fish, etc., steeped in wine or vinegar, whey, eggs, salt, wax, and suet (in plasters), gall of fish (Tob. 6:8; 11:11), ashes, cow dung, etc.; fasting- saliva, urine, bat’s blood, and the following rarer herbs, etc.; ammesision, menta gentilis, saffron, mandragora, Lawsonia spinosa (Arab. alhenna), juniper, broom, poppy, acacia, pine, lavender or rosemary, cloverroot, jujub, hyssop, fern, sampsuchum, milk-thistle, laurel, Eruca muralis, absynth,jasmine, narcissus, madder, curled mint, fennel, endive, oil of cotton, myrtle, myrrh, aloes, sweet cane (acorus calamus), cinnamon, canella alba, cassia, ladanum, galbanum, frankincense, storax nard, gum of various trees, musk, blatta byzantina; and these minerals-bitumen, natrum, borax, alum, clay. aetites, quicksilver, litharge, yellow arsenic. The following preparations were also well known: Theriacas, an antidote prepared from serpents; various medicinal drinks, e.g. from the fruit- bearing rosemary; decoction of wine. with vegetables; mixture of wine, holiey, and pepper; of oil, wine, and water; of asparagus and other roots steeped in wine; emetics, purging draughts, soporifics, potions to produce abortion or fruitfulness; and various salves, some used cosmetically, e.g. to remove hair; some for wounds and other injuries. The forms of medicaments were cataplasm, electuary, liniment. plaster (Isa 1:6Jer 8:22Jer 46:11Jer 51:8; Josephus, War, 1:33,5), powder, infusion, decoction, essence, syrup, mixture.

An occasional trace occurs of some chemical knowledge, e.g. the calcination of the gold by Moses; the effect of “vinegar upon nitre” (Ex 32:20Pr 25:20; comp. Jer 2:22). The mention of ” the apothecary” (Ex 30:35Ec 10:1), and of the merchant in “powders” (Song 3:6), shows that a distinct and important branch of trade was set up in these wares, in which, as at a modern druggist’s, articles of luxury, etc., are combined with the remedies of sickness . . .

See also my article: Demonic Possession or Epilepsy? (Bible & Science) (7-9-20).

The Bible’s account of a bizarre malady suffered by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is confirmed by modern science:

Daniel 4:33 . . . Nebuchadnez’zar . . . was driven from among men, and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.

Oddly enough, doctors and psychiatrists have identified an odd malady called boanthropy that likely describes Nebuchadnez’zar’s bizarre condition. The website, Online Psychology Degree Guide has an article, “15 Scariest Mental Disorders of All Time”, including a section on this disorder, which reads:

Those who suffer from the very rare — but very scary — mental disorder Boanthropy believe they are cows, often going as far as to behave as such. Sometimes those with Boanthropy are even found in fields with cows, walking on all fours and chewing grass as if they were a true member of the herd. Those with Boanthropy do not seem to realize what they’re doing when they act like a cow, leading researchers to believe that this odd mental disorder is brought on by dreams or even hypnotism. Interestingly, it is believed that Boanthropy is even referred to in the Bible, as King Nebuchadnezzar is described as being “driven from men and did eat grass as oxen.”

One word. Soap. The idea that modern science “teaches us” that we must wash our hands under running water is not true. Still water will be fine if you use a sterilizer. Soap is just the most common such. We have a whole array of sterilizing agents now, just as I noted ancient doctors had, and we have even better ones now. None of which are ever mentioned in the Bible. No angels or aliens ever thought to tell the Biblical authors about sterilizing agents.

Carrier claimed that the Bible never mentions soap. Wrong:

Job 9:30 (RSV) If I wash myself with snow, and cleanse my hands with lye, [also translated as “soap” or “bleach” or “cleansing powder”]

Isaiah 1:25 I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.

Jeremiah 2:22 Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord GOD. [KJV: “nitre . . . soap”]

“Lye” in this verse is Strong’s Hebrew word #5427neṯer: translated as nitre in the KJV (here and at Proverbs 25:20: “as vinegar upon nitre”). According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, it meant “natron, or carbonate of soda, a mineral alkali.” Strong’s Concordance defines it as “mineral potash (so called from effervescing with acid):—nitre.” Likewise, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon: “nitre, prop. natron of the moderns, fossil alkali, potash . . . which, when mixed with oil, is used even now for soap . . . when water is poured upon it, it effervesces or ferments.

“Soap” here is Strong’s Hebrew word #1287: bōrîṯ. It means, according to Brown-Driver-Briggs: lye, alkali, potash, soap,  (used in washing).” Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon adds: “something which cleanses, something which has a cleansing property . . . specially salt of lixivium, alkali, especially vegetable . . . made from the ashes of various salt and soapy plants.” It also appears in Malachi 3:2 below.

Malachi 3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; [KJV: “fuller’s soap”]


[L]et’s compare this feeble wizardry-passing-for-science in the Bible with the actual height of ancient science: the best knowledge and theories they accomplished before modern times (because basically no medical knowledge was acquired in the “Middle Ages” in between—in fact, most of it was then forgotten and had to be rediscovered before it could be advanced upon).

Here are excerpts from my book, Science and Christianity: Close Partners or Mortal Enemies? (Oct. 2010); I won’t bother to indent all of this material:

[T]he vast majority of Christian leaders looked favorably on the Greco-Roman medical tradition, viewing it as a divine gift, an aspect of divine providence, the use of which was legitimate and perhaps even obligatory. Basil of Caesarea (ca. 330-79) spoke for many of the church fathers when he wrote that “we must take great care to employ this medical art, if it should be necessary . . .”

[H]ow did the presence and influence of the Christian church affect knowledge of, and attitudes toward, nature? The standard answer, developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and widely propagated in the twentieth, maintains that Christianity presented serious obstacles to the advancement of science and, indeed, sent the scientific enterprise into a tailspin from which it did not recover for more than a thousand years. The truth, as we shall see, is dramatically different, far more complicated, and a great deal more interesting. . .

Naturally enough, the kind and level of education and intellectual effort favored by the church fathers was that which supported the mission of the church as they perceived it. But this mission, interestingly, did not include the suppression of scientific investigations and ideas.

If we compare the early church with a modern research university or the National Science Foundation, the church will prove to have failed abysmally as a supporter of science and natural philosophy. But such a comparison is obviously unfair. If, instead, we compare the support given to the study of nature by the early church with the support available from any other contemporary social institution, it will become apparent that the church was the major patron of scientific learning. Its patronage may have been limited and selective, but limited and selective patronage is a far cry from opposition.

The contribution of the religious culture of the early Middle Ages to the scientific movement was thus primarily one of preservation and transmission. The monasteries served as the transmitters of literacy and a thin version of the classical tradition (including science or natural philosophy) through a period when literacy and scholarship were severely threatened. Without them, Western Europe would not have had more science, but less. (David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science [Univ. of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 2008], pp. 325 and 148-150, 156-157)

St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379; bishop and Doctor of the Church)

If you observe carefully the members even of the animals, you will find that the Creator has added nothing superfluous, and that He has not omitted anything necessary.” He drew lessons from the migration of fish, the stealth of the octopus, the function of the elephant’s trunk, the behavior of dogs tracking wild animals, and the existence of both poisonous and edible plants. All play their designated role in nature, even poisonous plants, for as Basil argued, “there is no one plant without worth, not one without use. Either it provides food for some animal, or has been sought out for us by the medical profession for the relief of certain diseases.

Thus did Basil respond to those who wondered why God would create poisonous plants capable of killing humans. (See: Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts [Cambridge, 1996], p. 6; primary sources unable to be accessed in Google Books)

Paul of Aegina (c. 625-c. 690) He is considered by some to be the greatest Byzantine surgeon, developed many novel surgical techniques and authored the medical encyclopedia Medical Compendium in Seven Books. The book on surgery in particular was the definitive treatise in Europe and the Islamic world for hundreds of years, contained the sum of all Western medical knowledge and was unrivaled in its accuracy and completeness. The sixth book on surgery in particular was referenced in Europe and the Arab world throughout the Middle Ages and is of special interest for surgical history. The whole work in the original Greek was published in Venice in 1528, and another edition appeared in Basel in 1538. [sources: Wikipedia: ”Paul of Aegena” and ”Science in the Middle Ages”]

Charlemagne (c. 742-814; Roman emperor)

Charlemagne . . . and his great minister, Alcuin [c. 740-804], not only promoted medical studies in the schools they founded, but also made provision for the establishment of botanic gardens in which those herbs were especially cultivated which were supposed to have healing virtues. (from Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom [New York: George Braziller, 1955; originally 1895], vol. II, 34)

Hunayn ibn Ishaq (also Hunain or Hunein; 809-873) [Nestorian] His monumental developments on the eye can be traced back to his innovative book, Ten Treatises on Ophthalmology: the first systematic book in this field. He explained in minute details about the eye, its diseases and their symptoms and treatments, and its anatomy – all possible by his extensive research and observations. For example, ibn Ishaq taught what cysts and tumors are and the swelling they cause, how to treat various corneal ulcers through surgery, and the therapy involved in repairing cataracts. [source: Wikipedia bio]

St. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179; Benedictine abbess; Doctor of the Church) . . . She wrote botanical and medicinal texts: Physica, on the natural sciences, and Causae et Curae. In both texts Hildegard describes the natural world around her, including the cosmos, animals, plants, stones, and minerals. She combined these elements with a theological notion ultimately derived from Genesis: all things put on earth are for the use of humans. [source: Wikipedia bio]

Rogerius (c. 1140-c. 1195) He wrote a work on medicine entitled Practica Chirurgiae (“The Practice of Surgery”): the first medieval text on surgery to dominate its field in Europe. It laid the foundation for the species of the occidental surgical manuals, influencing them up to modern times. The work, arranged anatomically and presented according to a pathologictraumatological systematization, includes a brief recommended treatment for each affliction. Rogerius was an independent observer and was the first to use the term lupus to describe the classic malar rash. He recommended a dressing of egg-albumen for wounds of the neck, and did not believe that nerves, when severed, could be regenerated. [source: Wikipedia bio]

Bartholomew of England (c. 1203-1272; Franciscan friar and bishop) He studied under Robert Grosseteste and was the author of On the Properties of Things (De proprietatibus rerum), an early forerunner of the encyclopedia. It has sections on physiology, medicine, the universe and celestial bodies, time, form and matter (elements), air and its forms, water and its forms, earth and its forms including geography, gems, minerals and metals, animals, and color, odor, taste and liquids. It was the first to make readily available the views of Greek, Jewish, and Arabic scholars on medical and scientific subjects. [source: Wikipedia bio]

Theodoric Borgognoni (1205-1298; Dominican friar and bishop) His major medical work is the Cyrurgia, a systematic four-volume treatise covering all aspects of surgery. He insisted that the practice of encouraging the development of pus in wounds, handed down from Galen and from Arabic medicine be replaced by a more antiseptic approach, with the wound being cleaned and then sutured to promote healing. Bandages were to be pre-soaked in wine as a form of disinfectant. He also promoted the use of anesthetics in surgery. A sponge soaked in a dissolved solution of opium, mandrake, hemlock, mulberry juice, ivy and other substances was held beneath the patients nose to induce unconsciousness. Borgognoni’s test for the diagnosis of shoulder dislocation, namely the ability to touch the opposite ear or shoulder with the hand of the affected arm, has remained in use into modern times. [source: Wikipedia bio]

Arnaldus de Villa Nova (1235-1311) He is credited with translating a number of medical texts from Arabic, including works by Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Qusta ibn Luqa (Costa ben Luca), and Galen. He is also the reputed author of various medical works, including Breviarium Practicae. He discovered carbon monoxide and pure alcohol. [source: Wikipedia bio]

Mondino de Luzzi (c. 1270-1326) He is often credited as the “restorer of anatomy” because he made seminal contributions to the field by reintroducing the practice of public dissection of human cadavers and writing the first modern anatomical text: Anathomia corporis humani. He describes the closure of an incised intestinal wound by having large ants bite on its edges and then cutting off their heads, which one scholar interprets as an anticipation of the use of staples in surgery. For three centuries, the statutes of many medical schools required lecturers on anatomy to use Anathomia as their textbook. [source: Wikipedia bio]

Gentile da Foligno (d. 1348) Gentile wrote several widely copied and read texts and commentaries, notably his massive commentary covering all five books of the Canon of Medicine by the 11th-century Persian polymath Avicenna, the comprehensive encyclopedia that, in Latin translation, was fundamental to medieval medicine. Gentile’s commentary de urinarum iudiciis made the first attempt to comprehend the physiology of urine formation: asserting that urine associated with the blood passes “through the porous tubules” of the kidney and is then delivered to the bladder. He connected the relationship between fast pulse rate and urine output and correlated the color of urine with the condition of the heart. For the originality of his thought it has been suggested that he was the first cardionephrologist. [source: Wikipedia bio]

Guy de Chauliac (c. 1300-1368) He was among the most important physicians of his time, and his ideas dominated surgical thought for over 200 years. He is most famous for his work on surgery, Chirurgia magna. In seven volumes, it covers anatomy, bloodletting, cauterization, drugs, anesthetics, wounds, and fractures, ulcers, special diseases, and antidotes. His treatments included the use of plasters. He also wrote De ruptura, which describes different types of hernias; and De subtilianti diaeta, explaining cataracts and possible treatments for them. [source: Wikipedia bio]

Girolamo Fracastoro (1478-1553) In 1546 he proposed that epidemic diseases are caused by transferable tiny particles or “spores” that could transmit infection by direct or indirect contact or even without contact over long distances. In his writing, the “spores” of disease may refer to chemicals rather than to any living entities.

I call fomites [from the Latin fomes, meaning “tinder”] such things as clothes, linen, etc., which although not themselves corrupt, can nevertheless foster the essential seeds of the contagion and thus cause infection.

His theory remained influential for nearly three centuries, before being displaced by germ theory. [source: Wikipedia bio] The British medical journal Lancet called Girolamo Fracastoro “the physician who did most to spread knowledge of the origin, clinical details and available treatments of [the sexually-transmitted disease syphilis] throughout a troubled Europe.” His poem, Syphilis sive morbus gallicus, 1530, gave name to the disease. Fracastoro excelled in the arts and sciences and engaged in a lifelong study of literature, music, geography, geology, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, as well as medicine. [source: Holding, Scientists of the Christian Faith bio]

Ambroise Paré (c. 1510-1590) He is considered as one of the fathers of surgery. He was a leader in surgical techniques and battlefield medicine, especially the treatment of wounds. He was also an anatomist and the inventor of several surgical instruments. Paré also introduced the ligature of arteries instead of cauterization during amputation. To do this he designed the “Bec de Corbin” (“crow’s beak”), a predecessor to modern hemostats. Although ligatures often spread infection, it still was an important breakthrough in surgical practice. Paré was also an important figure in the progress of obstetrics in the middle of the 16th century. He revived the practice of the podalic version of delivery. He contributed both to the practice of surgical amputation and to the design of limb prostheses. He also invented some ocular prostheses, making artificial eyes from enameled gold, silver, porcelain and glass. [source: Wikipedia bio]

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) He authored one of the most influential books on human anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Workings of the Human Body) and is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy. Vesalius’ work on the vascular and circulatory systems was his greatest contribution to modern medicine. He defined a nerve as the mode of transmitting sensation and motion and believed that they didn’t originate from the heart, but that nerves stemmed from the brain. His most significant contribution to the study of the brain was his trademark illustrations in which he depicts the corpus callosum, the thalamus, the caudate nucleus, the lenticular nucleus, the globus pallidus, the putamen, the pulvinar, and the cerebral peduncles for the first time. Due to his impressive study of the human skull and the variations of its features he is said to have been responsible for the launch of the study of physical anthropology. [source: Wikipedia bio]

Gabriele Falloppio (1523-1562; canon) He added much to what was known before about the internal ear and described in detail the tympanum and its relations to the osseous ring in which it is situated. He also described minutely the circular and oval windows (fenestræ) and their communication with the vestibule and cochlea. He was the first to point out the connection between the mastoid cells and the middle ear. His description of the lacrimal ducts in the eye was a marked advance on those of his predecessors and he also gave a detailed account of the ethmoid bone and its cells in the nose. His contributions to the anatomy of the bones and muscles were very valuable. It was in myology particularly that he corrected Vesalius. He studied the reproductive organs in both sexes, and described the Fallopian tube, which leads from the ovary to the uterus and now bears his name. He was the first to use an aural speculum for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the ear, and his writings on surgical subjects are still of interest. [source: Wikipedia bio]

Jose de Acosta (1540-1600; Jesuit priest) For his work on altitude sickness in the Andes he is listed as one of the pioneers of modern aeronautical medicine. He was one of the earliest geophysicists, having been among the first to observe, record and analyze earthquakes, volcanoes, tides, currents, magnetic declinations and meteorological phenomena. He denied the commonly held opinion that earthquakes and volcanoes originated from the same cause, and offered the earliest scientific explanation of the tropical trade winds. [source: Adventures of Early Jesuit Scientists bio]


Here’s more similar observations (not in my book):

One cannot overestimate the importance of medicinal plants in the Middle Ages. Although the original text of Dioscorides is lost, there are many surviving copies. His texts formed the basis of much of the herbal medicine practiced until 1500. Some plants were used for specific disorders, while others were credited with curing multiple diseases. In many cases, draughts were made up of many different herbs. No monastic garden would have been complete without medicinal plants, and it was to monasteries that the sick went to obtain such herbs. Additionally, people might have gone to the local witch or to the apothecary for healing potions.

By the twelfth century, there were medical schools throughout Europe. The most famous was the school of Salerno in southern Italy, reputedly founded by a Christian, an Arab, and a Jew. A health spa as early as the second century, Salerno was surprisingly free of clerical control, even though it was very close to the famous and very powerful monastery of Monte Cassino. The medical faculty at Salerno permitted women to study there.

The medical school at Montpellier traces its roots back to the tenth century, though the university was not founded until 1289. Count Guilhem VIII of Montpellier (1157–1202) permitted anyone who had a medical license to teach there, regardless of religion or background. By 1340, the university at Montpellier included a school of anatomy.

In 1140, Roger of Sicily forbade anyone from practicing medicine without a license, indicating that doctors were clearly under some form of regulation. In the late Middle Ages, apothecary shops opened in important towns. Interestingly, these shops also sold artists’ paints and supplies, and apothecaries and artists shared a guild—the Guild of Saint Luke.

Physicians were trained in the art of diagnosis—often shown in manuscripts holding a urine flask up for inspection (54.1.2Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, marginal illustration, fol. 143), or feeling a pulse. In fact, in the sixth century, Cassiodorus wrote that “for a skilled physician the pulsing of the veins reveals [to his fingers] the patient’s ailment just as the appearance of urine indicates it to his eyes.” Observation, palpation, feeling the pulse, and urine examination would be the tools of the doctor throughout the Middle Ages.

Surgery such as amputations, cauterization, removal of cataracts, dental extractions, and even trepanning (perforating the skull to relieve pressure on the brain) were practiced. Surgeons would have relied on opiates for anesthesia and doused wounds with wine as a form of antiseptic.

Many people would have sought out the local healer for care, or might have gone to the barber to be bled or even leeched. Midwives took care of childbirth (21.168) and childhood ailments. For the sick and dying, there were hospitals. Although many large monasteries did have hospitals attached to them—for example, Saint Bartholemew’s in London and the Hotel Dieu in Paris—and all would have had at least a small infirmary where sick and dying monks could be cared for, it is unclear just how much time the monks dedicated to care of the sick. The medicus in a monastery would have devoted himself to prayer, the laying on of hands, exorcizing of demons, and of course the dispensing of herbal medicine. The hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena was initially administered by the canons of the cathedral (23.16616.154.5). It was renowned for its efficient administration and, supported by wealthy patrons, was richly endowed with works of art (1975.1.248832.100.95). Many communities had hospitals to care for the sick that were independent of monasteries. (Sigrid Goldiner, “Medicine in the Middle Ages”, The Met, Jan. 2012)

See also related materials:

“Medieval medicine of Western Europe” (Wikipedia)

“Forget folk remedies, Medieval Europe spawned a golden age of medical theory” (Winston Black (professor of medieval history], The Conversation, 5-14-14)

“Medicine or Magic? Physicians in the Middle Ages” (William Gries, The Histories, Vol. 15, Issue 1, 2019)

“Top 10 Medical Advances from the Middle Ages” (Medievalists.Net, Nov. 2015). The ten advances are the following:

Hospitals / Pharmacies / Eyeglasses / Anatomy and Dissection / Medial Education in Universities / Ophthalmology and Optics / Cleaning Wounds / Caesarean sections / Quarantine / Dental amalgams

Philosophy, Science & Christianity (my web page)

Christianity: Crucial to the Origin of Science [8-1-10]

Scientific & Empiricist Church Fathers: To Augustine (d. 430) [2010]

Christian Influence on Science: Master List of Scores of Bibliographical and Internet Resources (Links) [8-4-10]

33 Empiricist Christian Thinkers Before 1000 AD [8-5-10]

23 Catholic Medieval Proto-Scientists: 12th-13th Centuries [2010]

Christians or Theists Founded 115 Scientific Fields [8-20-10]

St. Augustine: Astrology is Absurd [9-4-15]

Catholics & Science #1: Hermann of Reichenau [10-21-15]

Catholics & Science #2: Adelard of Bath [10-21-15]

Science and Christianity (Copious Resources) [11-3-15]

Loftus Atheist Error #7: Christian Influence on Science [9-9-19]

The Bible is Not “Anti-Scientific,” as Skeptics Claim [National Catholic Register, 10-23-19]

Seidensticker Folly #59: Medieval Hospitals & Medicine [11-3-20]

Seidensticker Folly #60: Anti-Intellectual Medieval Christians? [11-4-20]

Medieval Christian Medicine Was the Forerunner of Modern Medicine [National Catholic Register, 11-13-20]

A List of 244 Priest-Scientists [Angelo Stagnaro, National Catholic Register, 11-29-16]

A Short List of [152] Lay Catholic Scientists [Angelo Stagnaro, National Catholic Register, 12-30-16]


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Photo credit: Thigh Cauterisation [Wellcome Images; refer to Wellcome blog post (archive) / Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: Atheist Richard Carrier trots out the usual ignorant accusations about the Bible & disease & medicine, & the supposed lack of medical science in the Middle Ages.


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