Early Modern Medicine and the Limits of Mathematics

In the wake of the Glorious Revolution, a number of Scottish intellectuals had troubles with the restored Presbyterian Church. Among them was Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713), a physician who left Edinburgh to teach in Leiden, where he articulated his view on how natural philosophers should update the study of medicine in reference to Newtonian physics. After returning to Edinburgh, Pitcairne’s popularity strikingly increased, as he presented himself as the Newtonian physician par excellence. For Pitcairne, the living bodies must be treated as hydraulic machines and physicians must aim at mathematical descriptions of the forces operating within them.

The paper describes the scope of Pitcairne’s project and will show how the innovations he tried to introduce in natural philosophy were mostly used in an openly polemical fashion, attacking other natural philosophers for their lack of mathematical precision. Such strictures are particularly evident in a dispute over the cure of fevers, in which Pitcairne was involved during the 1690s. The dispute highlights the clash between two perspectives on how medicine should be practiced.

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