Today, we go from monsters and marvels to modern
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.
Ambroise Paré was an
unlikely Renaissance man. Born in 1510, he trained
as a barber-surgeon -- a grisly business. Then he
went off to war. As he watched scholastic medicine
trying to cope with gunpowder, he saw how far out
of touch with human suffering it had drifted. So he
went back to Paris and rewrote the practice of
surgery. He combined clear vision with a new
dimension of mercy. He put flesh and blood on the
Renaissance belief that human learning should have
a human center. Barber-surgeons stood outside
formal medicine in the 16th century. But
Paré's surgical brilliance got him into the
Royal College. He eventually became chief surgeon
to Charles IX.
His talent for observation took him far beyond
surgery. When he was 61 he turned to birth defects.
He wrote a major book on the subject. He called it,
On Monsters and Marvels. And here we see how
science was starting to change. Paré's first
pages aren't too promising. He lists the causes of
birth defects. They are: The Glory of God; The
Wrath of God; Too much seed; Too little seed;
Corrupt seed; Mingling of seed; Indecent posture by
the expectant mother; A narrow womb; A blow to the
mother; Demons; Devils; and finally, The mother's
That done, he recounts a
terrible gallery of case histories: Siamese twins,
people born with missing or extra body parts, and
more. He includes some of the stuff of fables: a
man's head on a horse's body -- that sort of thing.
But he always represents that as ancient hearsay.
He does tend to assert, without evidence, which of
the causes begat the malformity. A two-headed child
was the result of too much seed, and so on.
But a thread of clear vision weaves through the
work. He includes sections on strange beasts --
whales, giraffes, elephants. He's circumspect about
the unicorn. He only records one claim to a
sighting of a unicorn-like animal.
Then he takes pains to debunk many monstrous birth
defects as tricks used by beggars. When we're done,
we realize that Paré has led us away from
the style people expected of Medieval medicine.
He's woven modern observation into a work that
started out looking like ancient folklore. These
old books can fool us. It's hard for 20th-century
eyes to see the huge changes taking place under the
cloak of an older, more fanciful, style.
There's a curious footnote to Paré's
Monsters and Marvels. Three years after he
published it, his wife of 32 years died. Two months
later, he remarried. He was now 64, and he followed
his work on birth defects by begetting six more
children by the time he was 72. All of them, I'm
pleased to report, were quite normal.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Paré, A., On Monsters and
Marvels. (tr. and Intro. by Janis L.
Pallister) Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Images from On Monsters and Marvels
courtesy of the Yale University, Harvey
Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library portrait
For more on Paré, see The Engines of Our
Ingenuity Episode No.
Copyright © 1988-1997 by
John H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
University Libraries, University
of Houston, Houston, TX 77204-2091.
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