“Science advances one funeral at a time”- Max Planck


Image: Speculum (Braga, 2017; Courtesy of the International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago)


Description: Medieval speculum used in surgical procedures. (International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago, USA).

Origin: 7th century. Near Pompeii, Italy.

Material: Iron and metal compound.


Length: 42 cm

Width: 18 cm

Conditions: Considerably-preserved. Iron deeply oxidised.

Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (1628)

William Harvey (1578-1657) was one of the first European scientist to successfully break away from Galen's theories and ideas. In his magnum opus -Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus- , Harvey described in detail the human circulatory system and the properties of the blood (Wright, 2012). It took more than 1400 years for scientists to innovate beyond Galen. How many had to die for this knowledge to be produced? Which innovative medical methods emerged because of this text?


(Wright, 2012)


This is a medieval speculum used in surgical procedures, specially to aid child birth. Although speculums have been used since Ancient Greece by “physicians”, their use became more common and widespread in the early medieval period (Hunt, 1992). This particular speculum is made from iron and another -rarer and more expensive- metal compound, which implies that it was owned by a wealthy individual. Furthermore, time and oxidation turned this object a beautiful green. This deep oxidation is visually appealing and endorses the object’s historical value.

Representation of Death and Innovation

This medieval speculum is a great example of something that was originally created to save lives but ultimately brought about death. There is not reason to believe that the creators of this tool had nothing but good intentions. Yet, because of misguided knowledge or simply the lack of, speculums like this one ended up taking more lives than saving them. When used by "physicians", it would often rupture body tissue and inflict severe damage, thereby causing a fatal hemorrhage in most "patients" (Siraisi, 1990).    

This object also accentuates the fact that most scientific innovations fail to really improve human life. A successful innovation often stands on top of hundreds of failures, misuses and deaths.  Given the considerable limitations of medical knowledge throughout most of human history, this innovative medical object ended up being a failed innovation for millennia. Speculums only started to successfully save human lives en masse in the 19th century. (Hunt, 1992)  Thus, it can be said that this object represents the failures behind successful innovations and the good intentions behind the "innovation process".


The fact that this object is almost indistinguishable from models that are a thousand years older highlights the failure of medieval doctors to look beyond the texts of Galen and other prominent Ancient Roman physicians. Most of medieval medicine was based in the works of Galen (129-210AD), whose treatises on medicine dominated Western scientific thought for thirteen decades. Although revolutionary for the first century, Galen's work quickly became outdated as generations of scientists failed to develop from it (Wallis (ed), 2010). Because of it, medieval physicians still believed that the womb floated freely in the body and that humans had four bodily fluids: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm (diseases were caused by an imbalance between these fluids) (Hunt, 1992). Some would argue that, because they failed to really innovate, producing instead mere replications of Ancient Roman tools, medieval physicians caused millions of unintended deaths.

Surgery in the Medieval Ages


Bendick, J. (2002).  Galen and the gate way to medicine. 1st ed. New York: Bethlehem Books. 

Hunt, T. (1992). The medieval surgery. 1st ed. London: The Boydell Press.

Mallis, F. (ed) (2010). Medieval medicine: a reader (readings in medieval civilizations and cultures). 1st ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Siraisi, N. (1990). Medieval and early renaissance medicine. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wright, T. (2012). William Harvey: a life in circulation. 1st ed. Oxford: University of Oxford Press.


Further Reading

Hunt, T. (1992). The medieval surgery. 1st ed. London: The Boydell Press.

Siraisi, N. (1990). Medieval and early renaissance medicine. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lurie, S. (2005). Obstetrics and gynecology: a history and iconography. 1st.

Monica, H. G (1985). The transmission of ancient theories of female physiology and disease through the early Middle Ages. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Galen -philosopher, physician and surgeon- is by far the most prolific writer of Antiquity. His numerous treatises on medicine continue to influence Western medicine to this day (Bendick, 2002).


(Bendick, 2002)

His everlasting influence makes one ask the questions: how many died because medieval doctors often failed to look beyond the texts of Galen and other Ancient Greek physicians? How did that hinder innovation?