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Views & Reviews Between the Lines

A life at stake

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 18 September 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3509
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

    Not many doctors, I think, have been burnt at the stake, though I am sure we could all nominate some of our colleagues who deserve to be. Perhaps the General Medical Council will soon reintroduce the medieval tradition for those doctors who refuse to abjure their errors and heresies; if so, surely the television rights and admission fees to the events could help to keep the annual subscription fee constant for a year or two.

    The most eminent doctor ever burnt at the stake was Michael Servetus (1509 or 1511-1553), who studied medicine in Paris and managed the feat, difficult at the time, of being condemned to death for heresy by both the Catholics and the Protestants.

    He wrote against the doctrine of the Trinity while practising medicine in Vienne, near Lyon, and Calvin, getting wind of this, denounced him to the Catholic authorities there, who condemned him to death. Servetus fled (he was burnt in effigy), intending to go to Venice, but made the strange and still puzzled-over mistake, fatal in the event, of stopping off at Geneva. There he was arrested and tried, unwisely covering Calvin with invective.

    In his Christianismi Restitutio (Christianity Restored), for the heretical nature of which he was burnt, Servetus first described the pulmonary circulation of the blood (an odd place to publish a physiological hypothesis): “That the communication and the preparation, are made through the lungs, we learn, from the various conjunction and communication of the vena arteriosa with the arteria venosa in the lungs; this is confirmed by the considerable bigness of the vena arteriosa, which hath never been so large, nor would send forth from the heart into the lungs, such a quantity of the pure blood, was it only for the nourishment of the lungs.”

    The first book about Servetus in English, published in 1723 (and second edition 1724), was An Impartial History of Michael Servetus, Burnt Alive at Geneva for Heresie. Servetus, regarded as a founder of and martyr for Unitarianism, was then still a controversial figure—an attempt to bring out a translation of his Christianismi Restitutio was suppressed on orders of the bishop of London, and the printed sheets of the book were destroyed.

    The Impartial History was probably intended as an argument for complete freedom of opinion. It was an anonymous work, and much ink has been spilt by antiquarians, with their special delight in all that is useless, on speculating who wrote it. Sir William Osler, who wrote a short book about Servetus, said that Edward Gibbon was “scandalized by the death of Servetus more profoundly than all the human hecatombs of Spain and Portugal [caused by the Inquisition],” and Gibbon probably derived his information about Servetus from the Impartial History.

    Servetus was an uncompromising man, a combination of naivety and arrogance, but Calvin had the arrogance without the naivety. The Impartial History quotes Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity: “Nature worketh in us all a love to our own counsels. The contradiction of others, is a fanne to inflame that love. Our love set on fire to maintaine that which once we have done, sharpneth the wit to dispute, to argue, and by all means to reason for it.”

    Thank goodness we are not at all like that nowadays.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3509

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