The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, medicine, and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy
By William Eamon
Published in 2010
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
There was a time when calling someone an “empiricist” was a slur that denoted quackery. Now, science is based on empirical observation. However, in the Renaissance, logical explanations mattered more than observed facts.
This book covers the life of Leonardo Fioravanti (no relation to Leonardo da Vinci), one of the pioneers of modern medicine. He was widely viewed as a quack / charlatan by the establishment during his time. In retrospect, he was one of the greatest doctors of the Renaissance.
His philosophy of empiricism was revolutionary: he didn't care why medicine worked; he only cared that it worked. The focus on the why was distracting for his peers. In a world without microscopes, they came up with odd causal explanations involving humors, God, and the Holy Spirit. By ignoring the question of why, and focusing purely on what worked, he was a better doctor. He was humble enough to understand that the reasons why something worked would remain mysterious.
He found many cures for tapeworms (a common ailment at the time) and performed one of the first splenectomies.
Leonardo Fioravanti’s life is fascinating. He was a traveling doctor, a monk, battlefield medic, and royal surgeon. He would travel everywhere from Sicily, to Morocco, to Spain to learn the secrets of medicine.
Like many great scientists, he suffered for his work. The mainstream academic doctors had him thrown in jail, possibly tortured, and eventually forced him to leave Italy to live in Spain in exile. There too, he was hounded by the medical establishment which resented his success. He died in poverty on the fringes of society.
The history of science is fraught with dead-ends that don’t lead anywhere. Leonardo Fioravanti’s school of empiricism died with him - although he would influence many later scientists.
This is one of the best written, most interesting, and all around awesome books about the renaissance that I have read. It is a true gem. The fact that this wasn’t a New York Times best seller is tragic.
Anyone can read “The Professor of Secrets.” Both complete novices and seasoned experts in the Renaissance will find something in it. This is one of the best history books that I’ve read this year.
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