“A Sacred Anatomy Both of Soul and Body”: The Image of the Godly Physician

By Christi Sumich.

Published by The International Journal of Science in Society

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“People fall into the Doctor’s hand, and so consequently into the Lord’s…Ten Tyburns cannot turn men over the perch so fast as one of these brewers of purgations…an Art to make poor souls kick up their heels. Insomuch that even their sick grunting patients stand in more danger of M. Doctor and his drugs than of all the Cannon shots which the desperate disease itself can discharge against them.”
Thomas Dekker, The Gull’s Hornbook 1609

“A Good Physitian comes to thee in the shape of an Angell, and therefore let him boldly take thee by the hand, for he has been in Gods garden, gathering herbes: and soveraine rootes to cure thee.”
Thomas Dekker, The Plague Pamphlets 1603

These two powerful statements about physicians were written during the same decade by the same author, yet they present the image of the physician in contradictory ways. The effort to convince the public that they resembled the latter depiction proved a pivotal one for seventeenth-century physicians. Their ability to maximize the positive associations of the physician as God’s ordained healer helped them combat their medieval reputation as atheistic, greedy, and counter-productive at a pivotal juncture in their quest for professionalism. Their claims resonated with a lay population for which ideas about the morality of medicine were common cultural currency. Far from being at odds with religion, physicians argued that their occupation placed them in a unique position to appreciate the interconnectedness between physical and spiritual health. Physicians, therefore, capitalized on the moral dimensions of illness present in early modern society by setting themselves up as moral authorities, capable of caring for the health of a body that was so intimately connected with the soul.

Keywords: Medicine - History, Physician, Religion, Morality, Early Modern England

The International Journal of Science in Society, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp.157-172. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.622MB).

Dr. Christi Sumich

Adjunct Assistant Professor, History, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Christi Sumich received her Ph.D. from Tulane University in 2008. Her field is the history of medicine. Her dissertation is titled: Soul-Sick Stomachs, Distempered Bodies, and Divine Physicians: The Role of Morality in the Growth of the English Medical Profession. Sumich has served as a fellow for the Murphy Institute’s Center for Ethics and Public Affairs, and has presented papers on the history of disease at several conferences, including a continuing medical education symposium. She has developed courses on the History of Hospitals and the Medical Profession and the History of Medical Ethics, as well as a service learning course on Disease and Healing in New Orleans, in which students volunteer to restore the historic cemeteries of New Orleans. She is currently teaching British History and Medical History at Tulane University and Loyola University.