Jean François Fernel

The French physician Jean François Fernel (ca. 1497-1558) reformed, systematized, and reorganized Renaissance medicine, popularizing the terms "physiology" and "pathology."

Born at Montdidier near Amiens, son of an innkeeper, Jean François Fernel was educated at the Collège de Ste-Barbe in Paris and received an arts degree from the University of Paris in 1519. Caught up in the rising tide of the new humanism led by Erasmus and Guillaume Budé, after graduating he recast his entire program to perfect himself in the classics, with special emphasis on mathematics. However, serious illness and loss of parental support compelled him to seek a living in medicine. He earned his way through medical school by lecturing and writing on astronomy, astrology, and mathematics, quickly achieving recognition not only as a learned physician and teacher but as a most modest and humane man. A highly successful medical practice created a reputation for him which spread throughout Europe, and he was called to the court by the Dauphin, later Henry II, to whom he became medical consultant and personal physician. Soon after the fall of Calais on April 26, 1558, Fernel fell ill and died at Fontainebleau.

Fernel is a classic example of the Renaissance physician. Characteristically, he approached medicine through humanistic studies, attempting to codify and clarify the accumulated knowledge of the past. He dealt with the customary topics of the day such as the elements and the humors and their functions in both health and disease. Unfortunately, he continued the medieval association of astronomy and astrology in medicine. His writings in this field were very influential on his successors. Nonetheless, his improvements on the astrolabe and his accurate estimate of the length of a degree were considerable scientific contributions.

Fernel greatly influenced medicine through his written works, of which there are no less than 100 editions. Great powers of systematization are evident in his most important publications, Dialogues and Medicina, on the basic sciences. In the first part of his Medicina, published in 1542 and entitled Physiology, he presented human physiology as an integral subject. The second part dealt with pathology and, unlike the usual approach of outlining case histories, attempted to treat the individual organs systematically. It may be said that Fernel popularized the terms "physiology" and "pathology." But his contribution was to draw together into a comprehensive treatise of ordered relationships what had been diffusely expressed by earlier writers. In his pathology, by relating theory to practice, he began to approach the conception of a clinical entity.

The distinctive features of Fernel's thought are his rationalism, analytical powers, insistence on observation. In formulating the new medicine, he carried forward the best of the old winnowed from its accumulated dross. This systematization and clarification formed an important platform from which medicine could evolve.


Further Reading on Jean François Fernel

The only complete biography of Fernel in English is Sir Charles Sherrington, The Endeavour of Jean Fernel (1946). It contains a translation of Guillaume Plancy's Life of Fernel (1607). Although it is an important work, brilliantly presented, caution must be exercised in accepting many of its claims of Fernel's originality. A good corrective is Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, vols. 5 and 6 (1941).