This is how Spain revolutionized medicine in the 16th century

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The historian Gonzalo Gomez Garcia set out to debunk a myth about medicine: the one that says that “until the advent of penicillin, everything was bleeding and that they would immediately cut off your arm or do other lurid and horrifying things to you” if you were sick, and that “if you went into a hospital, you just went out the back door.” Contrary to this view, the professor of Ancient and Medieval History at the Francisco de Vitoria University has thoroughly studied the 16th century Spanish medicine to vindicate “a golden generation of doctors in Spain who formed the foundations of modern medicine”. “Neither sorcerers nor bleeders, humanist doctors were the first scientists who gave dignity to medical treatment”, he assures.

Gómez García has synthesized the findings of his research in an interesting informative book published by Fundación Banco Santander in its Fundamental History Collection: Heal bodies and save souls. Medical humanism in Spain and America in the 16th century. In addition, the work is complemented by a series of podcasts that summarize the contents of the book.

Based on profuse research work in archives —such as that of the old Antezana hospital, a private institution with more than five centuries of history—, Gómez García also refutes the idea that Spain in the 16th century was a scientifically backward country, despite being the world’s greatest power. “That pessimism of 1898 still survives, that feeling of sadness regarding the history of Spain,” said the author this Wednesday at the foundation’s headquarters, during the presentation of the book to the press.

The writer Luis Alberto of Cuencaa member of the Royal Academy of History and present at the event, congratulated Gómez García on his work and opined that his book “is situated on the balance sheet, nor on that jingoistic triumphalism, much less on the contempt for our history, but it is objective, and objectively Spain had all the ballots to advance in many scientific, literary and artistic fields because we were an important power”.

Page of the work Dióscorides translated and commented by doctor Andrés Laguna. Printed in 1555 in Antwerp

As Gómez García explains, “at the end of the 15th century it was seen that the medieval medical model was not worth it” because it had not been able to face “a crisis as fat” as that of the Black Death. In northern Italy, people began to talk about the dignity of people, which “begins to lay the foundations of humanism”, and this was also reflected in medicine, placing the patient above all and seeking as an objective “their reintegration into society.”

In the 16th century, Medicine became one of the three great university majors of the time, along with Theology and Law, and health became professional: “They were no longer charity hospitals run by friars and where you went not to go out, but rather that you were going to be cured, to reintegrate into society thanks to the treatment of the health workers and to recover the dignity lost based on your illness or your poverty”, says Gómez García. The Catholic kings also created the Royal Tribunal of Protomedicato, in charge of evaluating and authorizing health professionals, something like “the MIR of that time”.

With this professionalization of hospitals, of doctors, surgeons, apothecaries, male and female nurses, “the foundations of modern medicine that we have today were laid,” adds the historian. In addition, Carlos V and Felipe II promoted the anatomical study allowing the cadaver dissectiona practice that had been persecuted by the Inquisition.

All these advances in medicine were quickly exported to America since the establishment of the first Spanish colonies. Founded in 1524 by Hernán Cortés, Hospital de Jesús de México is the oldest on the continent, and other hospitals and universities were created “for Spaniards and for natives”, as the natives were called (in addition to “Indians”). The segregation in some hospitals had nothing to do with a matter of racism, “but because there were diseases from Europe and the contact of indigenous people with them had to be minimized,” says the author of Healing bodies and keeping souls.

Apart from the disastrous epidemiological effect that the arrival of the Spaniards had on the indigenous population, at a medical level the contact between Spain and America brought great pharmacological novelties to Western medicine, since plants and remedies used by the natives were adopted.

Another characteristic of the medicine of the time is that the crown reduced the number of hospitals in the cities —“often founded by mendicant orders and that were worthless”, affirms the historian— and they began to concentrate on fewer hospitals but better preparedfor the sake of efficiency, “a concept that seems to be an invention of the 21st century,” says Gómez García.

Another curious consequence of this advance in health care in the 16th century is the rise of comedy penswhich have their origin in the plays that were performed in the courtyards of hospitals to entertain the sick.

In the health system of the time, the most expensive thing for the patient was not medical attention, but medicines. “A good syrup could cost you a tenth of your annual salary”says Gomez Garcia. The crown, according to the researcher, assumed these expenses, thus reinvesting the taxes collected, especially in the viceroyalties of America.

Heal bodies and save souls is the second volume of his Fundamental History collection, a collection that brings to light episodes, facts, characters, themes and writings in the history of Spain and Latin America between the 16th and 18th centuries that, due to various circumstances, have been forgotten or not. researched enough.

Francisco Javier Expósito, head of history at Fundación Banco Santander, comments that “at a time of debate on health and patient treatment, this book illuminates a history of pioneering and humanistic Spanish medical and health science, putting us before the mirror from the past to the future”.


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