Medical Developments and Religious Belief with Special Reference to Europe in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Farr, Alfred Derek (1977). Medical Developments and Religious Belief with Special Reference to Europe in the 18th and 19th Centuries. PhD thesis The Open University.



It has frequently been suggested that, historically, science and religion react together in a state of conflict. Three areas of medical development have been studied to determine the nature of such conflict in this field where, in particular, its existence has been alleged.

The introduction into Europe of inoculation for smallpox, about 1720, seems to have been met by religious objections from some hyper-Calvinist sources - particularly in Scotland - but this opposition had almost disappeared by the 19th century, and it did not recur on the introduction of cowpox vaccination by Jenner in 1798.

Obstetric anaesthesia is commonly said to have stimulated massive religious opposition when it was introduced in 1847. Evidence of such opposition in contemporary sources has proved to be virtually non-existent, however, and it appears that this 'conflict' is a myth, based upon a defence prepared by James Young Simpson of Edinburgh against an attack which never materialized.

The value given to the life of unborn children was a source of genuine conflict between the medical profession - which regarded the fetus as disposable - and the Roman Catholic church - which regarded all life as valuable, even that of the unborn. Debates occurred over induced abortion, embryotomy, and the caesarian operation -a means of saving the child which the catholic church supported, but surgeons regarded as unacceptably dangerous for the mother. These differences continued until-well into the present century.

It is concluded that, while occasional specific disputes have occurred, there is no evidence of any general 'warfare' between medicine and religion, and that such a conflict is merely an historiographical artifact based upon past failures to study the historical evidence sufficiently closely.

Viewing alternatives

Download history


Public Attention

Altmetrics from Altmetric

Number of Citations

Citations from Dimensions

Item Actions