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Jack of All Trades? Medical Practitioners and the Design, Manufacture, and Use of Instruments, Apparatuses, and Machines

Jane Draycott

Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow in Classics: Ancient Science and Technology, University of Glasgow

What sort of technical education did ancient Greek and Roman medical practitioners have with respect to the instruments, apparatuses, and machines that they seemingly frequently needed to design, manufacture, and use in the treatment of congenital or acquired bone conditions such as clubfoot, dislocation, fracture, amputation, and avulsion? Ancient medical treatises do not tend to explicate the process of designing and manufacturing such items, and even the instructions given regarding using them are hardly comprehensive step by step guides (e.g. Drachmann 1963).

Previous studies of the technē of medical practitioners have focused on the acquisition of medical knowledge through education and apprenticeship (e.g. Horstmanshoff 2010) while studies of artisans have focussed on their industries and the products they produced (e.g. Burford 1972). The interaction between medical practitioners and artisans has not been systematically examined, even in studies that have focused on the equipment itself (e.g. Majno 1975, Bliquez 2014).

Outwith medical treatises, other types of literary, documentary, and even material evidence can be informative regarding how medical practitioners obtained their equipment, and they suggest that there were a range of possibilities. In the case of medical instruments, while one might inherit their instrumentaria from a master or even purchase standard items ready-made from a metal-worker, what about more specialist items? One might design one’s own instruments, then commission them from a blacksmith, but from whom did the medical practitioner acquire the knowledge of metal-working necessary to design such items? With regard to apparatuses such as ladders and chests, the information given in works such as the Hippocratic treatises On Joints and On Fractures indicates that not only should medical practitioners be able to utilise whatever is to hand to construct such items, but they should know how to use them effectively, and even distinguish between good and bad, competent and incompetent usage. From whom did the medical practitioner acquire the knowledge of carpentry and engineering necessary to construct such items?

This paper will examine the extent to which a medical practitioner’s knowledge was sufficient to undertake the design, manufacture, and use of instruments, apparatuses, and machines him or herself, or to delegate it to someone else and be in a position to judge the results. It will explore the nature of the relationship between technē and training with regard to the interaction between medicine and other trades, and seek to assess the degree to which medical practitioners were influenced by artisans, and artisans were influenced by medical practitioners.

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Techne and Training: New Perspectives on Ancient Scientific and Technical Education

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