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Published March 2014 | Published
Journal Article Open

Descartes and the Bologna affair


Descartes is well known as a mathematician and natural philosopher. However, none of Descartes's biographers has described the invitation he received in 1633 to fill a chair in theoretical medicine at the University of Bologna, or the fact that he was already sufficiently known and respected for his medical knowledge that the invitation came four years before his first publication. In this note I authenticate and contextualize this event, which I refer to as the 'Bologna affair'. I transcribe the letter written to the Bolognese Senate announcing efforts to bring Descartes to the university and explain the events that led to Descartes receiving the invitation. While many questions about the Bologna affair cannot be answered because of the paucity of the historical record, I conclude that the event invites us to consider again the larger historiographical issue of how best to integrate the history of medicine with the history of science and philosophy during the early modern period.

Additional Information

© 2013 British Society for the History of Science. First published online 18 February 2013. This paper could not have been written without the help of Cynthia Klestinec and Craig Martin, both of whom took time from their own research in Italy to travel to the Archivio di Stato di Bologna on my behalf. I also wish to thank Roger Ariew, Harold Cook, Ofer Gal, Daniel Garber, Stephen Gaukroger, Mordechai Feingold, Kristine Haugen, John Heilbron, Nico Bertoloni Meli, Melissa Pastrana, Mac Pigman, Renee Raphael, John Schuster, Nancy Siraisi, Noel Swerdlow, Theo Verbeek and the anonymous reviewers for this journal. Thanks also to audiences at the New York Academy of Science, Miami University of Ohio, the University of Sydney, the Warburg Institute, the University of Cambridge, Princeton University, and Caltech for their questions, suggestions and encouragement.

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August 19, 2023
August 19, 2023