Medical Exchanges in the 18th Century

CASE 2:  Medicine and Childbirth

Global Context: Medical Exchanges in the Eighteenth Century

During the eighteenth century, Europeans were intensely interested in foreign cultures. The growing importance of international trade and the race to establish overseas empires led to increasing contact with non-European cultures. Leading thinkers of the Enlightenment also saw in foreign societies the alternate models that they could use to construct a rational, secular society. These expanded contacts with foreign lands, joined with a new spirit of scientific curiosity and inquiry, led to some notable medical exchanges. An important example is the introduction of Turkish techniques of smallpox inoculation to England. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey during 1717–18 AD, observed that Turkish women routinely immunized their children against smallpox. They did this by taking material from a sick person’s smallpox pustules and putting it in a cut in a healthy person’s arm. When properly done, this induced a mild case of smallpox that then conferred lifelong immunity against future outbreaks of the deadly disease. (The Chinese had practiced similar procedures for centuries, although they generally placed the infectious material in the person’s nostril.)

While still in Turkey, Lady Mary had her own son inoculated using this method, and, after the Montagu family returned to England, she had her daughter similarly inoculated. Lady Montagu actively promoted this technique in Britain, and it quickly found advocates among the British medical establishment and the British royal family. By the mid-eighteenth century, smallpox inoculation became commonplace in England and also had spread to the European continent and North America. In fact, Edward Jenner (1749–1823 AD), who performed the first “vaccination” for smallpox in 1796 AD, was originally a practitioner of smallpox inoculation. Jenner’s innovation was to make inoculation safer and more reliable by using infectious matter from cowpox (a cattle disease that was harmless to humans) rather than smallpox. The word “vaccination,” in fact, comes from the Latin word vacca (i.e., “cow”).

China loomed particularly large in the European imagination. The Catholic missionaries who had begun traveling to China during the late sixteenth century sent reports of a highly sophisticated and advanced civilization. For European merchants, China was a trove of luxury goods: the land of tea, porcelain, and silk. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European enthusiasm for Chinese goods stimulated the popularity for “chinoiserie” products that arrived from China or items that were decorated in a Chinese-like style. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Europeans had a generally positive image of Chinese culture. By the end of the eighteenth century, these positive views of China were conjoined by negative stereotypes, many born from the experiences of European traders and diplomats who were unhappy with the trade restrictions imposed on them by the Chinese government. All in all, there was a variety of different information about China circulating at the time. This included information about Chinese medicine, including theories of the body, diagnostic methods, and therapies such as acupuncture, moxabustion, massage, and calisthenics.

The earliest descriptions of Chinese medical practices came from Jesuit missionaries or European doctors who had traveled to China or Japan (which had adopted classical Chinese medicine as the basis of learned healing). The earliest known work on Chinese medicine in a European language was written by a French Jesuit missionary (his identity is disputed), entitled The Secrets of Chinese Medicine, Consisting of the Most Perfect Knowledge of the Pulse. It was published in Grenoble in 1671 AD. Particularly influential were three texts published over the next few decades by doctors of the Dutch East India Company who had traveled to Japan. The first of these was Andreas Cleyer’s Specimen Medicinae Sinicae sive opuscula medical ad mensem sinensum (An Exemplar of Chinese Medicine, or brief works on medicine in the Chinese spirit). In this work, published in 1682 AD, Cleyer described the fundamental theories of Chinese medicine. The following year, Wilhelm Ten Rhyne published a book on the treatment of gout, in which he described the use of acupuncture and moxabustion to treat this condition in Japan. Finally, Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716 AD) described the use of acupuncture and moxabustion in a detailed text on the history and culture of Japan (1712 AD). All three works circulated in Europe and provided a core of knowledge about Chinese medical practices. The French took particular interest in Chinese medicine, and throughout the eighteenth century, physicians and medical students continued to consult the accounts of Cleyer, Ten Rhyne, and Kaempfer. Many French doctors derided Chinese medical theory as fanciful and deplored Chinese doctors’ lack of knowledge about anatomy. However, enough medical men remained fascinated enough by acupuncture to begin experimenting with it by the early nineteenth century. The first French doctor to use acupuncture on his patients was Louis-Joseph Berlioz (father of the composer Hector Berlioz). In 1816 AD, Berlioz published an account of his successful experiences and advocated that acupuncture be more widely adopted. Despite criticism and skepticism from some quarters, acupuncture became extremely popular in France during the 1820s and 1830s. It was also used in America around the same time, and Franklin Bache (great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin) wrote a well-known account of its effects.

Continue to: Comparing Eighteenth Century Medical Practices
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