Medicine in old Poland

Medicine in old Poland

As in other European countries, the Renaissance brought new trends and solutions to Polish medicine – mainly through their reception from German and Italian states. Among the higher social classes, the awareness of the need to develop medical sciences and the need to use the services of professional medics and pharmacists was growing, and the royal court itself became the model for the nobility and magnates. At the same time, faith in magic, alchemy, and astrology has increased.

The increasing dissemination of medical knowledge was possible thanks to printed herbariums, which contained descriptions of herbs and their healing properties. The most important studies of this type included the herbal works of Stefan Falimirz (1534 – the first published Polish herbarium), Hieronim Spiczyński (1542), Marcin Siennik (1568) and the work of Simon Syreniusz from Oświęcim, whose date of publication – 1613 – may be used as a symbolic end of the Renaissance era in the development of Polish medicine. Herbariums were very broad studies, as they also contained descriptions of medicinal products other than herbs, recipes, and tips and tricks on everyday problems.

Among the great names of the doctors of the Renaissance period operating in the Republic of Poland, three should be mentioned first of all.

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The first of him is Józef Struś (1510 – 1568) from Poznań, court physician of Zygmunt Stary and Zygmunt August. Struś received a thorough education at the Krakow Academy and the University of Padua, where he was able to study thanks to the generosity of his patron Jan Łaski. As a doctor of medical sciences, he spent twelve years in Padua, dealing mainly with issues in the field of cardiology and the structure of arterial vessels, he also translated Galen’s medical works from Greek into Latin. For his contribution to the development of science and pedagogical activity, he was honored with the dignity of the vice-chancellor of the University of Padua – Struś’ lectures were attended by, among others, the great Wesaliusz, the father of modern anatomy.

Although Struśstill referred to Galen in his works, his works were characterized by freshness and originality of views. The most famous work of the Poznań scientist is Sphigmicae artis, a treatise in five books on circulation and heart rate. Sphigmicae artis was the result of twenty years of active professional work of Struś, who was one of the first to try to present the pulse to the reader using illustrations, and noticed the influence of temperature on the heart rate and suggested the existence of vasomotor nerves. This work was extremely popular and brought the Struś international recognition.

Józef Struś returned to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1537. He lectured at the Krakow Academy, then served as court physician to Queen Izabella of Hungary, and from 1559 to King Sigismund Augustus. Józef Struś died in 1568, according to a romantic message, helping the poor of Poznań during the plague epidemic in that city.

Another great physician of that period was Wojciech Oczko, an outstanding researcher of syphilis and a precursor of Polish balneology, and the court physician of three Polish monarchs: Zygmunt August, Stefan Batory and Zygmunt III Vasa. He was born in 1537 in Warsaw, and from 1557 he studied at the Krakow Academy, and later at the universities of Padua and Bologna.

Wojciech Oczko became famous primarily for two works. The first was the treatise entitled A quirk dedicated to syphilis, or syphilis. Oczko appreciated the effect of mercury in the treatment of this disease, but at the same time being aware of the great danger to which the patient is exposed during such treatment: after all, you will see a strong peasant (…) dust in the name of God (…) – if you see a weak, dry (…) – not dust. In the old Polish language, dust was called inhaling vapors of mercury sulphides. Another method of mercury application was the so-called smearing, i.e. rubbing in the ointment containing this element.

Illustration from the work of Sphigmicae artis by Józef Struś. Source:

To sum up – the era of rebirth in medicine, both in the broader European context and in the narrower Polish context, it is impossible to mention its negative features. It should be remembered that with the simultaneous enormous development of anatomy, surgery and pharmacy, the Renaissance era was not only the victorious parade of the ideas of humanism. It is also the burning of witches and heretics at the stake, unprecedented in the Middle Ages, pogroms of Jews, a living faith in the power (also medical!) Of magic and spells, and frequent outbreaks of epidemics that ravage villages and cities.

The development of human anatomy turned out to be the greatest breakthrough for the Renaissance. It was an impulse for further research not only on the human body, but also on the ways of dealing with diseases and injuries – pharmacy, physical therapy, balneology and surgery developed.

In Poland, the development of medicine was associated with the reception of the achievements and experiences of Western doctors, but many Polish academics contributed to the development of world medicine. At the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Krakow Academy experienced its heyday, to slowly but relentlessly lose its importance the closer it was to the seventeenth century. At that time, other cities were to play very important roles as research centers – they were mainly Gdańsk.

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