Peter Anstey writes…
The London physician Thomas Sydenham (1624–1689) is regarded today as one of the greatest physicians of the seventeenth century. He is even claimed to have had an influence on the philosophy of John Locke. But what exactly is the basis of Sydenham’s reputation?
A careful study of the appearance of Sydenham’s name in the medical writings of the latter decades of the seventeenth century and the correspondence of his friends and associates reveals that during his professional years he faced constant opposition and criticism. Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, said of him in a letter to Robert Boyle (24 December 1667): ‘with so mean and un-moral a Spirit I can not well associate’. Sydenham was never to become a Fellow of the Royal Society or of the College of Physicians.
However, his posthumous reputation is markedly different. After his death, Sydenham was praised for three things: his commitment to natural histories of disease; his decrying of hypotheses and speculation; and his Hippocratic emphasis on observation. Interestingly, these are the hallmarks of the experimental philosophy. Witness, for example, what Locke says of him in a letter to Thomas Molyneux of 1 November 1692:
- I hope the age has many who will follow his example, and by the way of accurate practical observation, as he has so happily begun, enlarge the history of diseases, and improve the art of physick, and not by speculative hypotheses fill the world with useless, tho’ pleasing visions.
By the early eighteenth century Sydenham’s name could hardly be mentioned without effusive praise, such as that found in George Sewell’s ode to Sir Richard Blackmore:
- Too long have we deplor’d the Physick State, …
Then vain Hypothesis, the Charm of Youth,
Oppose’d her Idol Altars to the Truth: …
Sydenham, at length, a mighty Genius, came,
Who founded Medicine on a nobler Frame,
Who studied Nature thro’, and Nature’s Laws,
Nor blindly puzzled for the peccant Cause.
Father of Physick He—Immortal Name!
Who leaves the Grecian [Hippocrates] but a second Fame:
Sing forth, ye Muses, in sublimer Strains
A new Hippocrates in Britain reigns.
These comments are of the most general nature. There is nothing about the actual content of Sydenham’s medical theories or therapeutics, which were so harshly criticized while he was alive. It is all about his methodology and it is cashed out in terms of the experimental philosophy.
Thomas Sydenham, by a remarkable change in fortunes, came to be regarded as the archetypal experimental physician largely thanks to his posthumous promoters such as John Locke. Sydenham, for better or for worse, was the experimental physician that the promoters of the experimental philosophy had to have.