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physiology & medicine

Until the middle of the seventeenth century the writings of the Roman physician Galen (130-201AD) dominated medical thought. With the publication in 1543 of Vesalius' De fabrica Galen's authority gradually began to erode. The discovery of the circulation of the blood, announced in William Harvey's On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals (1628), provided another radical break with the past. Harvey's method and results provided the inspiration to subsequent generations of physiologists. A group of young Oxford physiologists including Richard Lower, Robert Boyle and John Mayow made further radical breakthroughs in the 1650s and 1660s discovering the cause and means of respiration and working on the human blood. Meanwhile Descartes' mechanistic approach to physiology began to exert its influence on cardiology, neurophysiology and the study of muscle movement.

Further breakthroughs were made in physiology and anatomy such as Willis' work on the brain and the discovery of the thoracic duct (Pecquet) and the capillaries (Malpighi), but little of this translated through to the treatment of illness. In the latter half of the seventeenth century the London physician Thomas Sydenham developed a more empirical approach to the study of disease and the first micro-organisms were discovered. However therapeutics remained in a very primitive state with such practices as blood letting and purging remaining standard treatments of disease.

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