Natural philosophy and medicine: the Schools Quadrangle

Natural philosophy and medicine: the Schools Quadrangle

The intellectual relationship between the three philosophies and the three higher faculties are built into the architectural fabric of the Schools Quadrangle.

The three higher faculties. 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, reflecting the superiority of the social and collective body politic to the individual and physical body, of mankind to the rest of creation, and therefore of moral to natural philosophy.  Medicine is on the left.

The three philosophies. 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 reflect 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 theatres -- 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.

These developments were anticipated in the Schola Medicinae as well. Before the building of the Ashmolean Museum in 1683, the medical lecture room housed the University's sparse natural history collections and occasional anatomical dissections. The position of the room in the south range of Quadrangle was doubtless chosen with this practical consideration in mind as well, in order to benefit from the natural light reaching the exterior of the Quadrangle from the south.

Credits. Howard Hotson, January 2024