Astronomy and Medicine

Edward Worth was a physician in early eighteenth-century Dublin, a fact reflected by the strong medical holdings of his library. Medicine in all its shapes and forms accounts for roughly one third of his collection, a medical collection which incorporates incunabula alongside pamphlets from 1733, the latter unbound because of Worth’s death in that year. One area which Worth displays very little interest in is in the complex and controversial subject of judicial astrology – the cross-over point of astronomy and medicine in the early modern period. This is unsurprising: after all, Worth began his serious collecting in the 1720s, not the sixteenth-century, when astrology, astronomy and medicine were seen to be symbiotically linked.

If Worth did not specifically target books which related astronomy and astrology to medicine he was not averse to developing his astronomical collection by collecting works on astronomy written by leading physicians. He had works by three such authors: the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro, the Danish physician Thomas Bartholin and the English physician Richard Mead.


Girolamo Fracastoro, Opera (Lyon, 1591), 2 vols, title page of vol. 2.

Worth had not one but two editions of the works of the Italian doctor Girolamo Fracastoro, 1478-1553, the first a two-volume 1591 Lyon edition and the second a Genevan edition of 1621. Fracastoro’s venture into astronomy was controversial: he became the major exponent of the homocentric theory in the sixteenth century – and indeed Christoph Clavius, writing his commentary on the Sphaera of Sacrobosco outlined Fracastoro’s homocentric theory as one of the main challenges to his own Ptolemaic system. Copernicus too was appalled by the homocentric theory. As Granada and Tessicini have argued (2005), he may well have re-written his dedication of De revolutionibus to Pope Paul III in an attempt to offset both the political and astronomical challenge of Fracastoro (who had sought papal support when he published his book Homocentrica in 1538). Tycho Brahe also combated the theory in his De Mundi Aetherei Recentioribus Phaenomenis which Worth had bought in the Frankfurt 1610 edition.

The homocentric concept was a simple one: each of the planetary spheres was homocentric (i.e. had the same centre) with the Earth. The theory was not a new one: it dated back to the ancient astronomers Eudoxus and Callippus and had been taken up by Aristotle himself. Although overthrown by Hipparchus and Ptolemy who saw the need to resort to eccentric and epicylics, the authority of Aristotle did much to keep the idea alive. Certainly Averroës (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198) had argued that purist Aristotelians should hold to it and reject Ptolemy’s innovations, but in general the Averroist position was in the minority and the Ptolemaic cosmos held sway throughout the Middle Ages and well into the sixteenth century. When Fracastoro and his Paduan colleagues attempted to revive it in the first half of the sixteenth century they had, however, an uphill battle, for the simple reason that it didn’t work – it could not adequately explain observations of planetary orbits.

Did Worth buy his Fracastoro because he had learnt of the homocentric theory from his copy of Clavius or because of references in his editions of the works of Copernicus and Brahe? Possibly, but we should also be aware that there was another reason (and possibly a more compelling reason for Worth given his medical interests): Fracastoro was one of the best known sixteenth-century writers on syphilis and the works purchased by Worth were his complete works, not just single editions of the Homocentrica.

Worth’s second purchase linking astronomy and medicine was the De Cometis of the renowned Danish physician Thomas Bartholin, 1616-1680. This work, as the title suggests, was more closely concerned with linking astronomical and medical areas:


Thomas Bartholin,
De cometa, consilium medicum, cum mostrorum nuper in Dania natorum historia 
(Copenhagen, 1665), title page.

Bartholin came of a famous Danish medical dynasty and his father, Caspar Bartholin, had himself published a work on astronomy advocating a mixture of Aristotelian and Tychonic elements. Thomas Bartholin’s work on comets should be seen in this context. Caspar Bartholin appears to have imbued an interest in both his sons since Thomas’s brother Erasmus, likewise a physician, also displayed interest in comets, making a number of observations himself of the comet of 1665.


William Musgrave, 
De arthritide anomala, sive Interna dissertatio. Ut et Richard Mead… 
De imperio solis ac lunae in corpora humana, & morbis inde oriundis 
(Amsterdam, 1710), title page.

The inclusion of Worth’s last work joining astronomy and medicine, William Musgrave’s De arthritide anomala, sive Interna dissertatio. Ut et Richard Mead… De imperio solis ac lunae in corpora humana, & morbis inde oriundis (Amsterdam, 1710) should occasion no surprise given that the Musgrave, like Worth, was a Fellow of the Royal Society. Indeed, he had been a frequent contributor to the meetings of the Dublin Philosophical Society. Musgrave, 1655-1721, was an even more frequent contributor to Philosophical Transactions. This work on arthritis was one of his most important works. First published in 1707 this second edition published at Amsterdam in 1710 contains one of the few works of a medico-astrological nature in the Worth Library: Richard Mead’s De imperio solis ac lunae in corpora humana, & morbis inde oriundis. However, as Guerrini points out (2004), this tract can either be viewed as an anachronistic work of astrological medicine, or as a combination of Newtonian theories and medicine: in effect Mead was attempting to create a Newtonian physiology. If viewed in a Newtonian light, the work would definitely have been of interest to Worth whose library clearly demonstrates the influence of the Newtonian philosophy.

Selected Reading

Cameron, A. (2004). ‘Musgrave, William (1655-1721), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Granada, M. A. and Tessicini, D. (2005). ‘Copernicus and Fracastoro: the dedicatory letters to Pope Paul III, the history of astronomy, and the quest for patronage’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 36, 431-476.
Guerrini, A. (2004). ‘Mead, Richard (1673–1754)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Hoppen, K. T. (ed.) (2008) Papers of the Dublin Philosophical Society 1683- 1709 (Dublin: Irish Manuscript Commission), 2 vols.
Scroll to Top