Christianity and Modern Medicine

Much of modern medicine can be traced back to devout Christians:

That modern science, including modern medicine, in large measure grew out of the Judeo-Christian worldview has been documented by many experts. As to science in general, the words of Rodney Stark are worth recalling:

“Science was not the work of Western secularists or even deists; it was entirely the work of devout believers in an active, conscious, creator God.”

Or as John Lennox wrote:

Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday, Babbage, Mendel, Pasteur, Kelvin, and Clerk-Maxwell were all theists, most of them Christians. Their belief in God, far from being a hindrance to their science, was often the main inspiration for it.”

People like Alfred North Whitehead and Robert Oppenheimer — neither of them Christian — have emphasised the importance of the Christian worldview in the development of modern science. So it should be no surprise that in the area of medicine, Christians have tended to lead the way as well. Here are just a few names that can be mentioned:

Many very important discoveries in many medical fields were made by people who held a Christian commitment and there is not room to mention them all here: William Harvey (circulation), Jan Swammerdam (lymph vessels and red cells) and Niels Stensen (fibrils in muscle contraction) were all people of faith, while Albrecht von Haller, widely regarded as the founder of modern physiology and author of the first physiology textbook, was a devout believer; Abbe Spallanzani (digestion, reproductive physiology), Stephen Hales (haemostatics, urinary calculi and artificial ventilation), Marshall Hall (reflex nerve action) and Michael Foster (heart muscle contraction and founder of Journal of Physiology) were just some among many others.

The same can be said of the advance of surgical techniques and practice. Ambroise Pare abandoned the horrific use of the cautery to treat wounds and made many significant surgical discoveries and improvements. The Catholic Louis Pasteur’s discovery of germs was a turning point in the understanding of infection. Lister (a Quaker) was the first to apply his discoveries to surgery, changing surgical practice forever. Davy and Faraday, who discovered and pioneered the use of anaesthesia in surgery, were well known for their Christian faith, and the obstetrician James Simpson, a very humble believer, was the first to use ether and chloroform in midwifery. James Syme, an excellent pioneer Episcopalian surgeon, was among the first to use anaesthesia and aseptic techniques together. William Halsted of Johns Hopkins pioneered many new operations and introduced many more aseptic practices (e.g. rubber gloves), while William Keen, a Baptist, was the first to successfully operate on a brain tumour.

One also thinks of things like modern nursing, and famous names such as Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale. Numerous books could be appealed to here which tell this story more fully. Let me mention just one book that is worth reading in this regard.

Consider Physicians, Plagues and Progress: The History of Western Medicine from Antiquity to Antibiotics by English historian Allan Chapman (Lion, 2016). In some 500 pages and in great detail, he offers us a fascinating tour of how medicine has developed, and the Christian connection to it.

He of course acknowledges other foundation stones, but Christianity did have a major role to play:

“If Greek independence and intellectual curiosity supplied one foundation for a specifically Western style of medicine, I would argue that the Judeo-Christian religion supplied another.”

There is plenty one could share from this book, but let me focus on just one aspect. Given all the controversy today over things like vaccines, let me look just a bit at some of the figures — including devout Christians — who were involved in this from early on.

One of the key players was the devout English physician Edward Jenner (1749-1823). He was involved in creating the world’s first vaccine, the smallpox vaccine. It “caused a sensation. Here was a simple, cheap, quick method, using easily accessible ingredients, that had the power of conferring lifelong immunity against one of the most feared scourges of the age.”

Chapman continues:

Vaccination, however, was not a cure for active cases of smallpox, but a preventative, or “blocker”, which took away the patient’s susceptibility to the disease. Living as he did in that pre-bacterial and pre-viral age, Jenner had no idea of the physiological mechanism behind the disease: the virus Variola major. Mercifully, since 16 October 1975, not a single smallpox case has been reported worldwide; a true triumph of medical science, and humanitarian zeal.

Consider two other key players: Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and Robert Koch (1843-1910). Says Chapman:

In the 1870s, Pasteur began to work towards preventing diseases such as chicken cholera in birds, anthrax in farm animals, and rabies in dogs and humans, by developing the immunological principles set out by Edward Jenner and others with regard to smallpox. … Pasteur named his new weakened-strain drugs vaccines, in honour of Edward Jenner’s vaccination method of 1796.

Louis Pasteur had demonstrated beyond doubt that many diseases were transmitted by bacteria and could be prevented from becoming active by pasteurization techniques, or by vaccines, but it was his younger German contemporary Robert Koch who supplied the crucial link between specific strains of bacteria as seen through the microscope and specific diseases, such as anthrax, cholera, and tuberculosis.

He continues: In 1882 —

“Koch had identified the cause of that great scourge, tuberculosis, the slow-growing Mycobacterium tuberculosis. This piece of research would win him an early Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1905, though an effective cure would have to wait the development of the first antibiotics in the late 1940s.”

Some closing thoughts

I am not a doctor, a medical expert, a scientist, nor a historian of science and medicine. Like most people, I have to rely on others — on various experts in the relevant fields. So when it comes to controversial issues in science and medicine, I have to read and study as best I can, trying to form my own views on certain topics.

The contentious issue of vaccinations is clearly one such topic. I make no claim to being any sort of expert on anything related to this. I can only draw upon what others have said, try to weigh up the evidence, and proceed from there. I have written a few articles before on this matter.

As is often the case, there tends to be various extremes that we ought to avoid. For example, there are some folks — Christians included — who really believe that all vaccines are evil, are dangerous, and/or are part of a malicious cabal of terrible plotters who are seeking to destroy the world.

But then there are those at the other extreme who seem to think all vaccines are only always good, safe and necessary. They get all bent out of shape when legitimate questions are asked, or valid objections are raised. They often lump all these sensible people in the middle together with anti-vaxxers, seeing them all as “conspiracy theorists,” nutjobs and the like.

Well, I am not part of either extreme. I think there is a place for vaccines, but there is also a place to ask hard questions — especially of some of the rushed-through vaccines that are now being pushed for COVID-19. So I will keep being sensibly cautious here, and not just run with the current narrative.

We need to get out of our heads any ideas that everything having to do with vaccinations is somehow the work of the devil, and something no believer could ever countenance. We should be thankful that God’s people were at the forefront of modern medicine, and helped us stem the tide of various infectious diseases.

But to state that much of the early work in immunisation and vaccination was basically medically and scientifically sound, and often undertaken by committed Christians, does not mean that this is always still the case today. Many scientists and medical experts and those in the pharmaceutical industry may be doing their best, and many may well have the desire to see real medical breakthroughs resulting in less disease and death.

But of course not everyone and everything is so pure in motivation or intent. There is such a thing as Big Pharma, and there are individuals and groups who are mainly in it for the money. And there may well be some truth to the charge that some at least of these folks like to have a never-ending supply of sick people and sicknesses so they can keep rolling out their products — at a cost — be it various medicines or vaccines or what have you.

Just as it is foolish and reckless to think that everyone involved in these areas is an evil and profit-hungry rogue, so it is silly to suggest that just because one dons a lab coat that they are working from pure motives and seeking only the best for others, with no thought of pecuniary reward or other baser motivations.

As all Christians should understand, everything in this fallen world is a mix. We have good, moral and well-meaning scientists, doctors and those in various big businesses. And there are also some who are greedy, wicked, looking for a quick buck, and reckless when it comes to the welfare of others. That is to be expected.

So there most certainly is a place for some healthy scepticism, for asking hard questions, and for not just running with everything the government or the “experts” are telling us, be they ScoMo and the state medical chiefs, or Gates and Fauci.

Very real negative medical complications — including death — from these new vaccines are valid concerns, and citizens have every right to proceed slowly here, seeking the best scientific and medical advice, and not being rushed or forced into receiving things that may well require longer-term testing and analysis.

And given that ominous things like mandatory vaccinations and vaccine passports are now very real possibilities indeed, we all must be very cautious, and keep asking hard questions and sounding the alarm when needed. I will certainly keep doing that. You should too.


Originally published at CultureWatch.
Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash.

By |2021-04-10T12:23:46+10:00April 12th, 2021|Faith, Good Books|1 Comment

About the Author:

Bill Muehlenberg is married with three sons, and ministers as an apologist and ethicist in Melbourne, Australia. He was one of the main drafters of the Canberra Declaration. Bill has a BA with honours in philosophy (Wheaton College, Chicago), an MA with highest honours in theology (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston) and is currently completing a PhD in theology.

Bill is a prolific author and a much sought-after media commentator. He has been featured on most Australian television and radio current affairs programs. Bill teaches ethics, apologetics and theology at several Melbourne Bible Colleges. He hosts his own blog CultureWatch, which features Christian commentary on the issues of the day.

One Comment

  1. Roger Davidson April 12, 2021 at 4:42 pm - Reply

    Brilliant post, thank you.

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