The Wellcome Library possesses a rare collection of early medical student dissertations, acquired from the Medical Society of London in 1984. Access was by handwritten card catalogue for many years, but we are now adding records to the online catalogues.
This collection deserves to be better studied for what it can tell us about medical education in the 17th and early 18th centuries, such as the pedagogic relations between professors and students and the dissemination of medical knowledge by the university system.
The dissertations and disputations were written in Latin by medical students and their professors at European universities in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. Readers may be surprised to see that many students travelled some distance across Europe to study even in the 17th century. For example, we have dissertations from Leiden University by British students John Leech, Gideon Wells, and John Tyrell.
After two years’ study, the medical degree candidate had to defend in public a thesis in the presence of the Vice-Chancellor, faculty, and educated men of the university town and their guests. This examination was known as the inaugural disputation. The published thesis, a short work of up to 30 pages, embodies a form of academic publication not found today.
The original, often book-length, work disputed in the thesis was written by the moderator (praeses) or another academic, and the student (respondent) was required to read out his thesis on it and then defend it and contend with the arguments posed by his opponents (the other students) during the examination. This oral debate followed principles of dialectical logic. The praeses provided assistance and corrections as required, and his name is printed on the title page of the thesis alongside that of the student. Perhaps the nearest modern parallel is the research paper for which the supervisor’s name is placed beside that of the post-doc who did much of the research!
The dual authorship of early theses can present a challenge to library cataloguers. Cutter’s Rules for a Dictionary Catalogue (1876) consider the respondent or defendant to be the author of the thesis except when it unambiguously appears to be the work of the praeses. However, the modern (1981-) cataloguing rules instruct the cataloguer to enter pre-1850 theses under the heading for the praeses unless the authorship of the respondent can be established. So catalogue records may be found under the name heading for either, depending on the age of the record contents and the Latin knowledge of the cataloguer.
Particular subjects recur in the dissertations: fevers and pleurisy are regular topics – not surprising given the increasing incidence of infections in burgeoning cities – and chlorosis (iron deficiency anaemia in young women) is often seen. And, of course, venereal diseases is a frequent topic.
We have dissertations moderated by the German Bernhard Albinus (1653-1721), who preferred the well-paid post of private physician to successive prince-electors rather than teaching students; his more dedicated son Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770), a prominent anatomist of his day who republished (with Boerhaave) the Basel edition of Vesalius’s atlas; and Archibald Pitcairn (1652-1713), a Scot hired by Leiden University for his teaching of the iatromathematical principles (physiology founded on the principles of maths and mechanics), but who went AWOL back to Edinburgh after only 15 months.
Other dissertations are from the universities at Strasbourg, Leiden, Utrecht, Basel, and many universities in Germany: Wittenberg, Halle an der Saale, Jena, Leipzig, Heidelberg, Altdorf, Tubingen, Erfurt, Frankfurt an der Oder, and Helmstedt.