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Gerhard van Swieten (1700-72)

Born in Leiden in the Netherlands, van Swieten was one of Herman Boerhaave’s most successful pupils. Though a gifted instructor, van Swieten was prevented from assuming a full university post at Leiden because of his Catholic faith. Instead, in 1745, he became the personal physician to Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. As a result he quickly gained much influence outside his native country. His first mission was to lead a fight against superstition in Maria Theresa’s empire, which included eradicating the vampire myth in Eastern Europe. He also introduced many reforms in medicine and improved medical instruction in the empire’s capital, Vienna.

Van Swieten compiled the textbooks through which Boerhaave’s ideas spread throughout Europe. His reform of medical education involved removing the influence of religious orders from medicine and establishing a formal system of training in the city’s medical school. He then attracted Anton de Haen (1704-76), another of Boerhaave’s students, who was instructed to transform the university into a great clinical centre. The Vienna clinic, established at the Burgerspital, was closely modelled on that of the teaching hospital in Leiden. Like the St Caecilia Gasthuis, where Boerhaave had taught, the Vienna teaching hospital also had 12 clinical teaching beds. De Haen remained in charge of the clinic until his death in 1776. His clinical teaching is preserved in his 17-volume Ratio Mendendi (produced between 1758 and 1774). Van Swieten initially designed and taught a two-year course on physiology and pathology with annual examinations. In general, the curriculum was revised in accordance with Boerhaave’s philosophy.

As a result of van Swieten’s educational reforms and subsequent successful appointments, the University of Vienna was transformed into a leading medical centre.

Related Themes and Topics

 

Bibliography

F T Brechka, Gerhard van Swieten and his World, 1700-1772 (The Hague: M Nijhoff, 1970)

Glossary:

Physiology

The science of the functioning of living organisms and their component parts.

Pathology

The branch of medicine concerned with disease, especially its structure and effects on the body.