Scientific Medicine vs. Theology by George B. Whatley, M.D. (April 1999)

This address was presented to the 21st annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation on October 17, 1998, at the Edgewater Hotel, Madison, Wisconsin.


In 1896 a book in two volumes was published with the title of A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. I shall attempt to review the medical portion of this monumental compendium.

The author was Andrew Dickson White, who was born in Homer, New York, on November 7, 1832. As an educated young man he entered the diplomatic corps serving as an attache to the U.S. delegation to St. Petersburg, Russia. Following this experience he served in the New York State Senate. He then wrote the charter for Cornell University and served as its first president from 1867-1885. During his tenure at Cornell he was U.S. Commissioner to Santo Domingo and later held that position in Germany.

After retiring from the presidency at Cornell, he served two years as U.S. Commissioner to Russia. In 1899 he became the first chairman of the International Peace Conference at the Hague. Andrew Dickson White died on November 4th, 1918; three days before his 86th birthday and one week before the end of WWI.

Now, scientific medicine vs. theology. Five hundred years before the birth of Christianity, a Greek physician by the name of Hippocrates first introduced the scientific approach to medicine. When Alexander the Great founded Alexandria on the north coast of Egypt in 331 B.C. he also established the school and library of Alexandria, which became the recognized center of scientific knowledge. The dynasty of General Ptolemy governed these institutions up to the time of the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 B.C. (about 300 years).

During this time Greek physicians practiced medicine according to the philosophy of Hippocrates. Control of the school at Alexandria passed into the hands of Jewish theology during this period. Later, Christian theology took control of the school and dominated it up to the 12th century, at which time Islamic theology took over. You can imagine how scientific medicine fared under Islam since one of the commands in the Koran states: “Do not pursue things you have no knowledge of.” Eventually Christian theology re gained control of the school and held it until its demise. The library became defunct in the 6th century.

Throughout history autopsies and the dissection of cadavers have contributed immensely to the advancement of medical science. In the first century autopsies were performed primarily to establish the cause of death. Nero was present at his own mother’s autopsy in 59 A.D.–but the cause of death was known; he had his mother executed!

In the second century a Greek physician by the name of Galen followed the scientific approach to medicine, but he was careful not to stray far from the policies of the Catholic Church–and for good reasons.

Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity in the fourth century, placing it on an equal footing with Judaism, Paganism and other religions. When Constantine supposedly developed leprosy the Christian practitioners advised him to pray to St. Sylvester, which he did, and was “cured.” So then he became a Christian and he moved the capitol from Rome to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople. It is now Istanbul, Turkey, and its predominant religion is Islam, but the government is secular.

It is understandable that prior to the 16th century even the intelligentsia would believe in a super natural cause for diseases and catastrophes. Through ignorance and superstition at the time and reliance on the bible as the word of God, the Church opposed all scientific endeavors including medicine. The Church of England steadfastly opposed all scientific investigation well into the 19th century.

The Church maintained that catastrophes such as earthquakes, violent storms, volcanic eruptions, droughts, famines and plagues were caused by God to punish man for his sins or for the sins of his ancestors. Catastrophes are certainly evil things as far as humankind is concerned. It is worth noting in the 45th chapter of Isaiah, verse 7, God says, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”

Sometimes these same catastrophes were considered to be caused by the devil either directly or through men, women and children who were labeled witches. These so-called witches were tortured and burned at the stake because in the bible, Exodus 22:18 says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Over a period of 1,600 years, thousands of people, including Jews, were slaughtered because of this insanity.

In the south of Germany these trials and executions were being directed by Pope Innocent VIII, while in the north the Protestants were conducting the same manner of slaughter. Just think how lucky we have been: there hasn’t been a burning at the stake in our country in over 200 years! But who knows what the future has in store for us.

The Dark Ages were not a good time for cats, either. The theologians of the time associated cats with witches and the devil. The devil, witches and cats–I believe that constitutes a trinity. From time to time the Church would stop the killing of cats when it recognized that a high population of cats was associated with a lower mortality in the Black Death epidemics.

In the south the executions were generally done in the bishops’ palaces: the common people called these palaces “shambles.” When a hurricane or a tornado hits an area it usually leaves that area in shambles. The dictionary lists another definition for shambles–it is “slaughterhouse.”

Early in its organization, the Catholic Church took a hard stand against all learning and science. The last scientist to work at the library of Alexandria was a woman by the name of Hypatia. She was born in 370 A.D. Her father preceded her at the library in the field of mathematics and astronomy. Because of her scientific esteem and her influence with the Roman governor, the archbishop of Alexan dria, whose name was Cyril, came to despise her. Her learning and science represented the Pagan culture which at the time the Church was intent on obliterating from society. The archbishop arranged for a band of fanatics to waylay her on her way to work, drag her from her chariot and kill her by scraping all the flesh from her bones using abalone shells. Abalone is a large snail with a bowl-like shell; an elevated ridge of breathing holes in the shell was found to be efficient in shredding the flesh from the living. This happened in the year 415 when Hypatia was 45.

Carl Sagan in his Cosmos in 1980 wrote, “The glory of the Alexandrian library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia’s death. It was as if the entire civilization had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery.”

Archbishop Cyril of Alexandria was made a saint.

With the invention of the microscope, medical scientists were able to isolate, identify and correlate the organisms and the diseases they caused. Knowledge was gained about bacteria, fungi, spirochete and parasites.

In spite of the opposition of the Church, it was proved that epidemics of typhus, cholera and Black Death were caused by ticks, lice, fleas, roaches and rats. And it was also proved that malaria and yellow fever were caused by mosquitos. Furthermore, it was learned that humans transmit to other humans such diseases as typhoid, TBC, smallpox and venereal diseases.

During the Middle Ages the Church fostered the belief that filthiness was next to godliness: that bathing was the sin of pride and that it tended to wash away the effects of baptism. The less exposed to water, the more holy one remained. Nuns bragged of only getting the tips of their fingers wet. I doubt that anyone has ever died just from the lack of bathing, but the lack of sanitation has contributed to the deaths of millions and will continue to do so in the future.

In the Middle Ages there was no sewage control so the water and food supplies were grossly contaminated by the waste from all the living. Garbage accumulated in the streets, breeding insects and rats. The general populace came to realize that epidemics receded for a while after the cleansing effect of great fires in the cities. So, cats and fires saved a lot of lives.

The Black Death, as it was called, originated in the Far East and was of two types: the pulmonic plague more prevalent in the east and the bubonic plague involving the lymph glands more prevalent in the west.

In 1347 the Christian crusaders were besieged by Tartars in the Far East in a city which is now Feodosiya, Russia. The Tartars became infected with the plague and were decimated by it, allowing the Christians to survive the siege. But during the battle, the Tartars catapulted their dead infected soldiers over the city wall. This spread the plague amongst the Christians, most of whom died at sea on the way home. Those who reached home set off an epidemic which spread across Europe and even reached Greenland.

Although the Church hierarchy couldn’t agree as to whether the plague was caused by God, the devil or the stars, they did recognize its contagious nature; the city of Dubrovnic across the Adriatic Sea from Venice began the policy of isolating immigrants for 30-40 days. Italian for forty is quaranta, hence our word quarantine.

During this time the Church conducted a very lucrative theological practice of medicine, accumulating great wealth and property. The popes established laws mandating healing by two methods. One was by the doctrine of signature healing, in which the logic was that if a plant or a leaf had any similarity in appearance or shape to that of an organ of the body then it must be utilizable to treat diseases of that organ. For example, liverwort leaf has a somewhat similar shape as the liver; therefore it was used to treat the liver. The bloodroot plant has red juice so it was used to treat diseases of the blood. There is a spot like an eye on the eyebright leaf so it was used to treat eye problems.

The Church also prescribed oral medications for various ailments. For a laxative the people were told to drink water in which a hair of any saint had been dipped; to cure a fever, drink water in which St. Remy’s ring had been dipped; to cure lunacy, drink wine in which the bones of any saint had been dipped. We have some people in the government of Alabama who would benefit from a few glasses of such wine.

The other method of healing was by miracles. This could be accomplished by appealing directly to a saint or by being exposed to a relic of a saint. This monopoly by the Church by faith healing delayed scientific medicine far into the 16th century. To be cured of leprosy one would appeal to St. Sylvester; to cure a toothache one would appeal to St. Appolonia; for epilepsy one would call on St. Valentine. Martin Luther, St. Paul and Mohammed could have used this specialist since all were epileptics. Many epileptics are prone to dreams which they consider reality. St. Christopher was called on to cure throat problems; he also protected travelers until a few years ago when for some unknown reason that license was revoked. Martin Luther believed in these things but he didn’t like the idea of paying for them.

Sainthood requires that the individual during his or her lifetime must have produced one or more miracles. To illustrate the duplicity of the Church in this process, the author recounts the specific case of one Francis Xavier. This man was born into Spanish nobility in 1506. He became a missionary priest and served primarily in India. He was apparently a good and honest man devoted to helping the poor. Throughout his life he kept a detailed diary never once alluding to a miracle. In all of his correspondence with his friends there was never any mention of a miracle. He died in 1552 at the age of 46.

During the 70 years following his death the Church created on paper a number of miracles to his credit–such as stopping a storm, curing the sick, raising the dead, casting out devils and preaching simultaneously in several languages. On the basis of these fabrications, in 1622 Pope Urban VIII issued the bull of canonization, elevating Francis Xavier to sainthood. This was the same pope who tormented and incarcerated Galileo in the Inquisition.

The Protestants, including the divine kings and queens, developed their own miraculous healing by the laying on of hands.

The Church opposed surgery, claiming the blood contained the spirit of the soul and should not be spilled. The Church opposed dissection of cadavers, claiming the bodies contained a mysterious bone which was necessary for resurrection.

Paradoxically, it was the pope who ordered the first autopsy in the western hemisphere–it was done in Santo Domingo to determine if siamese twins had two souls. Needless to say, not even one was found then nor has one been found in all of the thousands of autopsies throughout history.

Dr. Andreas Vesalius in the 17th century was physician to Charles V of Germany. He consulted an executioner who assured him no mysterious bone remained after people were burned at the stake. In his position in the court he was allowed to dissect cadavers and thus became the first physician to establish a fundamental lasting knowledge of human anatomy.

Dr. William Harvey, also in the 17th century, demonstrated that the heart pumps blood throughout the body in a closed system of arteries and veins. He suspected the existence of a capillary network connecting the arterial and venous systems but was never able to demonstrate it. Even he believed the spirit of the soul was in the blood, but he couldn’t demonstrate that either. The Church suppressed into the 20th century the facts concerning the circulation of the blood.

In the 16th century the Jesuits learned from the natives in Peru of the narcotic effect of chewing coca leaves–something we all would welcome if we were about to have a tooth extracted. Not the Catholics. The conservative bishops from all parts of South America in the 2nd Council of Lima in 1567 condemned its effect as an illusion of the devil.

Later in the 17th century the Jesuits also learned from the Peruvian natives that the bark of a tree was effective in treating ague (malaria). The drug from this bark became known as quinine and the Catholics began using it immediately. But the Protestants, out of hostility to the Catholics, would not use it, calling it an invention of the devil. This opposition was also joined by some ultra-conservative physicians–you know, like our American Medical Association!

In the 18th century a Dr. Boyer noticed that milkmaids who contracted a mild form of cowpox never became sick during smallpox epidemics. He conducted a scientific experiment in which he inoculated people with material taken from the pustules on the cows’ udders. Those people developed a mild form of cowpox and thereafter proved to be immune to smallpox.

For a while both Catholics and Protestants refused taking the vaccinations on the basis that they felt it was against God’s will. The Protestant side of the equation was the first to accept the benefit of this medical discovery. When the Catholics realized they were dying in smallpox epidemics in spite of their prayers, while the vaccinated Protestants were not developing smallpox, then they began accepting vaccinations.

In all of its fight against the advancement of medical science, the Church was most obstructionist in the field of pain relief and anesthesia. It seems to be a dogma of the Church that people are supposed to suffer because of original sin and God telling Eve in the bible story that she would bring forth her children in sorrow. Ap parently Christ on the cross chose not to atone for humankind’s original sin.

As far back as 500 B.C. in the time of Hippocrates, opium and hyoscyamus (an extract of mandrake root) were used to relieve pain. While these drugs do not produce anesthesia, they are effective sedatives and are used today in conjunction with anesthetics.

It is recorded in the history of Scotland that in the year of 1591 a lady of rank by the name of Eufame Macalyane was burned alive on the castle hill of Edinburgh. She was burned alive because while giving birth to her twin sons she asked the midwife, whose name was Agnes Sampson, to give her something for pain. Now, Agnes Sampson, out of Christian love for this suffering woman, must have reported the incident to the church authorities.

In 1847 a Scottish physician by the name of James Simpson first used chloroform for anesthesia in the practice of obstetrics. Later came ether, nitrous oxide and novocaine. Now we have sophisticated anesthetics but ether and nitrous oxide are often used in conjunction with the anesthetics. Chloroform was discontinued years ago because of its toxic effect on the liver.

There was strong Christian opposition to the use of anesthesia up to the middle of the 19th century. It was Dr. Simpson himself who started the wall to crumble when he went to the bible and reminded the Christians that God had put Adam into a deep sleep before removing that famous rib.

Resistance to anesthesia weakened rapidly after 1853 when Queen Victoria demanded chloroform during the birth of her 8th child. It was about this time that a very charismatic clergyman by the name of Thomas Chalmers began preaching in favor of the use of anesthesia in the practice of medicine–and the sheep followed the shepherd.

An article in the November 10th, 1997 issue of U.S. News and World Report stated that as late as the 1970s some doctors and midwives’ organizations maintained that the pain in childbirth is a wonderful experience for women.

The Alabama Freethought Association is located near Talledega, Alabama, on the property of Lake Hypatia, which is named for the woman scientist executed by the Church early in the fifth century.

Foundation Life Member George B. Whatley, M.D., raised in poverty in Alabama, put himself through medical school and was in his own practice for 30 years, retiring in 1985.

Freedom From Religion Foundation