From the fifteenth century scientific breakthroughs such as Galileo’s (1564-1642) heliocentric system began challenging the authority of the Church. Man, not God, became the centre of attention and study, and it is also around this time that Vesalius (1514-1564) published his landmark De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body). The Fabrica represented the first serious challenge to Galenic anatomy and brought its author considerable fame and fortune. By the age of 28 Vesalius had become physician to the Holy Roman Emperor (neither Holy nor Roman, but actually the Emperor of Germany), Charles the Quint.
The renaissance was an intellectual and cultural movement that began in Italy in the 1300s and spread throughout Northern Europe. It signified a revival of classical learning, art, and architecture - and the concept of the dignity of man. While religion remained a powerful influence, people became less consumed with spiritual matters and more interested in the arts and sciences, leading to advancements in health care and to a better understanding of disability.
Disability becomes a medical issue requiring the services of trained professionals. Persons with disabilities assumed the on-going role of patient, needing to be cured. This concept of the disabled as sick and weak, dehumanized the individual to a class of citizen that had no rights - legal or moral. The disabled became objects of pity and curiosity. However, in most villages, almshouses, or poorhouses, were present to take care of those who did not have family, or members of the family were unable to care for them. A surprising number of these almshouses had few physically disabled people.
In peasant life, being disabled was thought of as a natural outcome of being poor. Families rarely expelled physically disabled members, but found ways for them to contribute to the family. Menial tasks were often done by those who could not work in the fields or as servants, and neighbors often pitched in when a member became sick. Those who were permanently disabled didn't live long due to the weakened physical state and general poverty overall, but by no means where they a burden to the family unless they were completely incapacitated. In these situations some families turned the care of the "invalid" over to a hospital or monastery, but this too was rare.4 But the mentally ill where treated quite differently. Mental illness had the aura of evil in those times, and hospitals and asylums built for the mentally ill weren't always a better home for these individuals.
In 1492, St. Mary of Bethlem, an asylum popularly known as "Bedlam", opened to receive mental patients in England. The institution itself was founded in 1247 as a priory.The institution became famous for it's horrible treatment of the mentally ill, illustrated by William Hogarh's 1735 painting.2
Bethlem is the world's oldest institution caring for people with mental disorders. It has been a part of London since 1247 and many people, rich and poor, have played a part in its history. Bethlem's patients have included many creative people. Most famous was the painter Richard Dadd, who was committed to Bethlem in 1844, after being tried for the murder of his father. Dadd was to spend 20 years at the hospital and then a further 22 years in Broadmoor hospital, to where he was transferred in 1864.2
The physicians of the Renaissance period had no formal education, taught themselves, and were unskilled compared to today's physicians. Most of…