Today, an unexpected student of medicine. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The year London was
devastated by fire, 1666, Christopher Wren was a
thirty-four-year-old astronomy professor at Oxford
-- not in architecture for which he's famous, but
in astronomy. Wren did become a major rebuilder of
that burned-out city. But, before the fire,
he was one of England's leading scientists.
Wren was also a prodigy. Even before he entered
Oxford University at the age of fourteen, he began
inventing scientific instruments, and he produced a
stunning array of measuring devices. At twenty-one,
Wren joined the astronomy faculty at Oxford, and by
twenty-nine he was given the Savilian Professorship
there. He brought to astronomy a brilliant talent
for the use of geometry -- so much so that Newton
called him a leading geometer of the day.
Wren's interest in architecture and city planning
began shortly before the Great Fire, and his great
architectural output followed it. But it was during
those years before the Fire that Wren-the-scientist
blossomed. And least known of Wren's vast
scientific contribution was his early work in
We generally hear so little of Wren's scientific
work because he showed remarkably little instinct
for scientific fame. He didn't patent his work. He
didn't even seek credit for it. When Christiaan
Huygens beat him to the publication of an
explanation of Saturn's rings, Wren simply said,
"I was so fond of the neatness of it ... that I loved it beyond [my own invention]."
Wren was only fifteen when he began assisting a
medical professor with his dissections. And he kept
working in medicine until the Great Fire. One of
his many accomplishments was that he may've been
first to inject medicine intravenously. What he did
was make a dog drunk by injecting wine into its
vein. That doesn't impress us until we realize that
Harvey had only recently explained that blood
circulates. The idea that blood was the
vehicle for narcotics and nutrients was completely
alien in Wren's time.
In his inaugural lecture as a professor, Wren
argued that we wouldn't learn to use medicines by
studying Hippocrates' aphorisms. Rather, we should
study the history of the diseases themselves. That
too is something we take as axiomatic today.
There's strong evidence that it was Wren who
provided a great many of the advances in brain
surgery credited to a doctor named Thomas Willis.
Neurosurgeon and historian John Fulton of Yale
University credited Wren with having discovered the
importance of antiseptic agents, over two hundred
years before Lister.
Then the Fire! And Wren became the architect of his
age. He built St. Paul's
Cathedral and fifty other London churches. We
forget his hospitals, whose design flowed from
medical knowledge. We forget the science that he
pursued for its own sake. Wren was that rare
person, without any real competition, who
constantly expressed the beauty of ideas in stone,
in brass -- and even in flesh and blood.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds