Michael Stolberg is chair of history of medicine and director of the Institut für Geschichte der Medizin, University of Würzburg. He received his medical degree in 1984 and his PhD in history and philosophy in 1994.
Drawing on some 4000 pages of personal notes on medical practice written by the little known Bohemian physician Georg Handsch, this paper studies the oral transmission of medical knowledge from laypersons to academically trained physicians in the sixteenth century. In marked contrast to learned physicians' attacks against ‘empirics’ and the ‘ignorance’ of the ‘vulgus’, numerous entries in Handsch's notebooks reveal that he and his teachers and colleagues were prepared to learn from the common folks, from patients and friends, from family members and even from ‘wise women’ and unlicensed ‘empirics’. They valued their ideas, observations and skills as potentially useful for their own practice. This remarkable openness, the paper suggests, was due above all to the rise of empirical approaches in learned medicine, the need to improve outcomes in view of the competition from unlicensed healers and the physicians' own upbringing in the medical lay culture of their time.