Natural philosophy and medicine: the Schools Quadrangle

Natural philosophy and medicine: the Schools Quadrangle

These intellectual relationship are built into the architectural fabric of the Schools Quadrangle.

As one enters the Quadrangle from the main entrance on Catte Street, the view is dominated by the perpendicular facade of the Proscholium and Arts End (Image 1). Behind it is found the Divinity School, incomparably the grandest of the lecture theatres, in virtue of its standing as the highest of the three higher faculties. To the left and right of the Divinity School are the schools for the other two higher disciplines. Law is on the right, perhaps reflecting the superiority of moral to natural philosophy, and of the body politic to the physical body, of mankind to the rest of creation.  Medicine is on the left, an arrangement which also allows the anatomical dissections conducted in the Schola Medicinae to benefit from the natural light reaching the exterior of the Quadrangle from the south.

The positio of the medical school on ths first floor of the Quadrangle has practical benefits: it further enhances the natural light available in the room. But the significance of this position is also symbolic. The Schola Medicinae is located directly above the Schola Naturalis Philosophiae, indicating that the route to medicine passes through natural philosophy.  Likewise, the Schola Jurisprudentiae is located directly above the Schola Moralis Philosophiae, indicating that the path to law leads through ethics and politics (Image 2).  Since the Divinity School is on the ground floor, the Schola Metaphysicae could not be located under it: it is found, instead, at the opposite side of the Quadrangle (Image 3). 

These arrangements are of more than architectural or antiquarian interest. Rather, they help to understand the importance of the history of medicine to the history of science in the seventeenth century. Of all the branches of university learning, medicine was by far the most deeply involved in the empirical and indeed experimental study of the natural world. The first large-scale pieces of 'scientific' infrastructure built within European universities were the anatomy theatres and botanical gardens built to serve the medical faculty. The practice of collecting natural historical specimens likewise emerged in medical contexts -- such as apothecary shops and anatomical theares -- as well as amongst gardeners such as the Tradescants. These associations help explain why university-trained physicians feature so prominently within the annals of the history of seventeenth-century science.