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No. 1567:
Christopher Wren, Physician

Today, an unexpected student of medicine. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The year London was devastated by fire, 1666, Christopher Wren was a thirty-four-year-old astronomy professor at Oxford -- not in architecture for which he's famous, but in astronomy. Wren did become a major rebuilder of that burned-out city. But, before the fire, he was one of England's leading scientists.

Wren was also a prodigy. Even before he entered Oxford University at the age of fourteen, he began inventing scientific instruments, and he produced a stunning array of measuring devices. At twenty-one, Wren joined the astronomy faculty at Oxford, and by twenty-nine he was given the Savilian Professorship there. He brought to astronomy a brilliant talent for the use of geometry -- so much so that Newton called him a leading geometer of the day.

Wren's interest in architecture and city planning began shortly before the Great Fire, and his great architectural output followed it. But it was during those years before the Fire that Wren-the-scientist blossomed. And least known of Wren's vast scientific contribution was his early work in medicine.

We generally hear so little of Wren's scientific work because he showed remarkably little instinct for scientific fame. He didn't patent his work. He didn't even seek credit for it. When Christiaan Huygens beat him to the publication of an explanation of Saturn's rings, Wren simply said, "I was so fond of the neatness of it ... that I loved it beyond [my own invention]."

Wren was only fifteen when he began assisting a medical professor with his dissections. And he kept working in medicine until the Great Fire. One of his many accomplishments was that he may've been first to inject medicine intravenously. What he did was make a dog drunk by injecting wine into its vein. That doesn't impress us until we realize that Harvey had only recently explained that blood circulates. The idea that blood was the vehicle for narcotics and nutrients was completely alien in Wren's time.

In his inaugural lecture as a professor, Wren argued that we wouldn't learn to use medicines by studying Hippocrates' aphorisms. Rather, we should study the history of the diseases themselves. That too is something we take as axiomatic today.

There's strong evidence that it was Wren who provided a great many of the advances in brain surgery credited to a doctor named Thomas Willis. Neurosurgeon and historian John Fulton of Yale University credited Wren with having discovered the importance of antiseptic agents, over two hundred years before Lister.

Then the Fire! And Wren became the architect of his age. He built St. Paul's Cathedral and fifty other London churches. We forget his hospitals, whose design flowed from medical knowledge. We forget the science that he pursued for its own sake. Wren was that rare person, without any real competition, who constantly expressed the beauty of ideas in stone, in brass -- and even in flesh and blood.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gibson, W. C., The medical Interests of Christopher Wren. Some Aspects of Seventeenth-Century Medicine & Science, Los Angeles: UCLA, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1969, Part II.

For an excellent short biography of Wren, see the following website:

See the Wikipedia article on Christopher Wren.

One of Christopher Wren's drawings of the circle of arteries in the human brain (done for Thomas Willis).

One of Christopher Wren's drawings of the circle of
arteries in the human brain (done for Thomas Willis).