On Sense and Nonsense of Premodern Medical Theories: the Example of Theories on Smallpox



Intellectual creations of the past, like philosophical ideas and theories, works of art and literature, myths, or concepts of nature, refer to aspects of the lived world in a great variety of modes, e.g. explaining, representing, reflecting them – a variety which is mirrored by a corresponding multitude of approaches in historical understanding. Pre-modern medical theories are a particularly big challenge for historical understanding, since it is often impossible to retrace their role in explaining certain aspects of nature or processes of illness, or to define their special function in a context of medical practice.

Whereas early historians of Chinese science like Joseph Needham did more or less ignore the theories underlying or preceding the development of certain technological innovations, contemporary historians and cultural anthropologists tend to restrict their explanations to selective aspects of the theoretical entities. They take secondary relations which medical theories maintain to other such creations or external historical facts, as the relevant causes accounting for their formation and special features – thereby almost ruling out the possibility of understanding the intentions of the creators or users of a given theory. Within the framework of this kind of postmodern historical research most explanations of a given theory are looked for outside the medical realm.


As an example of how historians have interpreted medical theories in a way that would just confirm their own interpretative scheme, I will examine different fashions of delineating the history of Chinese pox medicine. I will then make an own attempt to follow the basic hypotheses of theories on pox which were developed between the 11th century and the 17th century arguing that the theoretical foundations for pox inoculation were not developed before the beginning of the 17th century. I will try to show that there is no reason to date this innovation prior to that time, by reconstructing and analyzing the logical structure and development of theories on pox up to the point where a specific explanatory model of the disease was created, which for its part provided a highly reasonable expectation that and why experiments of inoculation would be successful.