Sir William Osler was the mentor for my generation, the last so influenced. His immense volume of factual information, grasp of the meanings imparted and power of intellect are displayed in The Evolution of Modern Medicine. If one seeking knowledge of our western civilization and science were allowed only one book, this small compilation would be the most sufficient.
The book embraces a series of lectures given by Osler at Yale in 1913. It was just prior to the onset of the hostilities of WW I and I wonder how much the impending war may have had on his presentations. On my own part I am certain I find especial interest in the history of the times around the fall of the Roman Empire because of the current status of our civilization.
These Dark Ages comprise a period of decline of all of Europe into an almost thousand years of superstition, pandemic plagues and poverty; the masses organized a system called feudalism. From my perspective I have always been bemused by these hundreds of years of the stagnation of medical knowledge and practice with no notable deviation from the principles established by the genius Galen. But of course the stagnation was pervasive. How can so many sentient reasoning minds be so enfeebled?
Somewhat surprising for the times Osler is candid in his association of the failures and misery of the Dark Ages to the dominance of Christianity and its dogma of the originally sinful man, the repugnance for the physical man.
Illness and misfortune was the sign of God’s wrath at sinful man. Life was cheap and not worth nurturing. That was for the next world, a world without the corruption of flesh. It was of course also a time of belief without understanding, proof, investigation or innovation. The Church was the proprietor and law of the land. It was the time of Christendom, unchallenged from within.
The flourishing of reason by the Greeks and Romans that saw amazing humanistic philosophic writings, political institutions and technological capacities that still evoke awe, was gone. The oppression of new knowledge and its methods are well documented. However I still have difficulty wrapping my arms around the notion that so much was just gone. Where did it go? For me it is a reminder that civilization is not a gene and it can be lost in a few short generations. It is fragile as are the mean and women who treasure it. As is likely clear I am naive with little knowledge of the period and have much to learn.