Medicina Curiosa, the first English-language medical journal, mixed the technical with the practical.
Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London
Three hundred twenty-five years ago, medicine was in flux, with old beliefs in magical healing coexisting with notions of new treatments based on observation and evidence. In 1684, within decades of the discovery of red blood corpuscles and the first microscopic look at spermatozoa, a London printer and bookseller named Thomas Basset began running off copies of Medicina Curiosa: or, a Variety of new Communications in Physick, Chirurgery, and Anatomy, from the Ingenious of many Parts of Europe, and Some other Parts of the World. It was the first medical journal published in English.
Earlier medical journals had appeared elsewhere in vernacular languages, including the Journal de Médecine in France. In England the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge and Weekly Memorials for the Ingenious reported on scientific discoveries, but fewer than a third of their pages focused on medicine.
The first issue of Medicina Curiosa, probably aimed at lay healers, mixed the technical and the practical. It featured articles on the anatomy of the inner ear and treating ear pain, as well as case histories from an English physician, including the anguished account of a patient’s death from the bite of a rabid cat. Fearful of antagonizing England’s physicians by disclosing trade secrets, Basset prefaced his journal with a disclaimer that his articles were no substitute for a properly trained physician’s care.
Despite Basset’s cautions, Medicina Curiosa’s second issue was its last, for reasons unknown. The swirl of progress eventually consumed all the earliest medical journals as established medical societies realized the value of printing medical news. By the middle of the nineteenth century, medical journals catered to physicians; one of the oldest still in circulation, The Lancet, was founded in 1823.
By 1900, many journals with characteristics familiar to today’s readers—peer-reviewed articles and scientifically reported studies—were being published. Today, tens of thousands bombard subscribers. In 325 years, we have advanced from a scarcity of information to a surfeit.