Thomas Sydenham Biography (1624-1689)


Thomas Sydenham was born into a prominent family in Dorset, England. He received a bachelor of medicine degree from Magdalen Hall, Oxford in 1648, and a doctor of medicine degree from Cambridge in 1676. In 1655 he began practicingmedicine in King Street, Westminster. Because he reintroduced into medicine the Hippocratic method of accurate bedside observation and the use of these observations in the classification and treatment of disease, he became known asthe "English Hippocrates."

At the time of Sydenham's entry into medicine, the climate of his professiontended toward the theoretical. Many of his colleagues were systematists who believed that all physical phenomena could be explained by a single chemical cause. In contrast, Sydenham directed his attention toward his patients' particular symptoms. He saw a need to develop a general clinical description of individual diseases, and his eventual fame arose from the firsthand accounts he recorded at his patients' bedsides in pursuit of this goal.

An empiricist and a skeptic, he believed human understanding to be limited toexperiencing and interpreting observable data. Applying his empiricism to the improvement of the science of medicine, he made the results of his treatments the test of the truth in his observations of illness. Known also as an optimist for his understanding of nature as an orderly instrument of a benevolent God, he believed that nature cured patients; physicians were merely nature's assistants.

Sydenham's approach to the understanding of the natural world had much in common with that of his contemporary, philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Lockeassisted or collaborated with Sydenham on several medical texts. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke placed Sydenham alongside Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Christiaan Huygens, calling them "master-builders"in the new sciences.

Between the years of 1669 and 1674, Sydenham kept a notebook of clinical observations upon which he based his magnum opus: Observationes medicae circamorborum acutorum historiam et curationem, published in 1676. He was thefirst to describe Sydenham's chorea (" St. Vitus' Dance"), but merely as an aside in a treatise on another subject. The first western physician to use quinine in the treatment of malaria, liquid opium (laudanum) in pain relief, andiron in the treatment of diseases of the blood, he is known also for the cooling regimen which revolutionized the treatment of smallpox and other fevers,and especially for the application of his medical principles in his treatiseon gout, of which he eventually died in London, England.

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