Michael Servetus was burned at the stake for his heretical medical writings

This edited article about medicine originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 421 published on 7 February 1970.


After a council in Geneva Calvin handed Servetus over to the Church Inquisition © Look and Learn 

“STUDENT RIOT. MANY TAKEN TO HOSPITAL AFTER STREET FIGHTING.”

The above could be the headline in a recent newspaper. But, this simple statement refers to the year 1537, when medical students in Paris rebelled against the authorities who had just condemned a new book by a 26-year-old Spanish doctor named Michael Servetus. You may wonder, why this book aroused such strong feelings. The simple truth of the matter is that it was about nothing more serious than the preparation of medicines for the cure of stomach ache! But the doctors at the University, bound as they were to traditional remedies, saw fit to criticise it most severely.

Poor Michael Servetus! He was one of those men whose entire lives seem to be dedicated to stirring up trouble. His rebellion against authority started at the age of 17, when his father, who was a successful solicitor, sent him to the University of Toulouse to study law. Outwardly, he did study law, poring over his legal books with all the dedication of a budding advocate.

But in secret he busied himself with the Bible. His consuming interest, in fact, was religion at that time, not law.

As it was, his interest in religion increased until he could no longer restrain himself from writing a book attacking the organised Catholic Church, which he thought to be very wrong in a number of ways. So worded was this book however, that it attracted the anger of Catholics and Protestants alike. It was an anger which he did little to soothe by later publishing another book, this time concerning the geography of Judea. Again, being the honest and sincere man he was, he tried to be absolutely truthful in his description of the Holy Land. This, needless to say, hardly tallied with what the Bible had to say. Servetus, quite rightly, did not see the sacred country as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” On the contrary, he thought it really rather dry and barren. The Catholic authorities were furious and they promptly condemned him to death. There was only one thing to be done, and Servetus did it. He took to his heels, and fled to Paris.

The final act, brings us to the riots in Paris. The offending book on medicines had been published the year he arrived there. Not content with the trouble this had caused, however, in the following year, 1538, he wrote another book – about the influence of the stars on health. As far as the authorities were concerned, this was the last straw. Servetus was a real troublemaker and he must go. And go he did. But not before he had acquired an outstanding knowledge of anatomy, working alongside his famous contemporary, the Flemish anatomist, Andreas Vesalius.

The road Servetus took out of Paris was long and tortuous. It led him through Avignon, on to Charlieu, to the medical school at Montpellier, and finally, in 1541, to Vienna where he remained until his death, acting as private physician to the local archbishop who had been one of his medical students in Paris. All this time he was editing and writing books on science and religion.

The climax, and final revolt, came in 1553 when he published a book entitled Christianismi Restituto. Although this work was primarily concerned with religion, it contained an important and momentous passage about the manner in which human blood moves from one side of the heart, through the lungs for purifying, and then back into the other side. This was something startlingly new, the first faltering step towards a suggestion that the blood circulates rather than ebbs and flows, an idea that was prevalent at the time. It was a great scientific discovery, yet because the book was mainly about religion, it passed almost unheeded by the physicians of the time.

Unfortunately, though, it did not escape the notice of the Church authorities. On 4th April, 1553, Servetus was arrested as a heretic on their express instructions. Nonetheless, with the help of friends, he managed to escape from prison whilst his trial was actually in progress. He set out for Geneva where he hoped to enlist the support of the great religious reformer, John Calvin, with whom he had already had some correspondence. Calvin, however, found himself unable to reconcile the physician’s beliefs with his own and therefore turned Servetus over to the dreaded Church Inquisition, offering himself both as prosecutor and witness.

On 26th October, 1553, Servetus was found guilty of heresy against the Church and condemned, once more, to death. The following morning he was escorted to a little hill overlooking the peaceful lake of Geneva and there, in the presence of Calvin himself, he was burnt alive.