From Magic to Microscope

From Magic to Microscope


Curator Introduction

Xinyi Wen

Xinyi Wen is a PhD candidate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. She is currently working on research project ‘The Doctrine of Signatures in Early Modern Medical Practice’, funded by Wellcome Trust. Her project approaches questions concerning Renaissance analogical worldview and early modern magic-science transition from the perspective of medical practice, and pays particular attention to the temporalities behind our conventional image of ‘the doctrine of signatures’ today. Her research interest covers multiple disciplines of early modern knowledge, including medicine, chymistry, natural history and philosophy.

Project Introduction

The Doctrine of Signatures in Early Modern Medical Practice

A walnut looks like a brain, and therefore could cure brain diseases — in pharmaceutical science and natural remedies today, a traditional medicinal idea ‘doctrine of signatures’ is often cited, as a belief that plants’ morphological resemblance to human organs indicate their curative effects. While this doctrine was often described as an ancient, traditional and even pre-historical idea, it was only first conceptualised as a full-blown theory by Swiss physician Paracelsus and gained its name, the ‘doctrine of signatures’,through early modern medical debates. Today, the doctrine of signatures has been frequently mentioned as a medical philosophy, an emblematic world view or allegorical reading of nature; yet it has not been systematically examined in early modern therapeutic practices, from chymical laboratories to household recipes. Meanwhile, despite being famously rejected by some influential scientists such as John Ray, this doctrine’s persistent influence on late seventeenth-century botanical and medical sciences has often been undermined.

This project aims to penetrate layers of myths concerning the doctrine of signatures, and historicise this doctrine in practices of early modern alchemy, medicine and natural history. It primarily focuses on German- speaking areas and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, while taking the broader temporal and geographical scale into consideration. It will challenge the treatment of this doctrine as a monolithic cosmology, and instead approach it as a fluid, malleable set of ideas and practices developed and transformed throughout the time.

Collaborators Introduction

Chongwei Jiao

Chongwei Jiao is a PhD Candidate at the  Department of the History of Science, School of Humanities, Tsinghua University. His current research interests include history of early modern natural philosophy and medicine as well as the relationship between natural philosophy and political philosophy in early modern period.

Sun Yuqi

Sun Yuqi is a master student at the Department of History of Science, School of Humanities, Tsinghua University. His current research interest is in the mechanics in Renaissance Italy, focusing on the revival of ancient knowledge and the impact of mechanics on the new science of early modern times. His research interests also include other mathematical sciences from antiquity to the Renaissance.

Whipple Museum

The museum’s holdings are particularly strong in material dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries, especially objects produced by English instrument makers, although the collection contains objects dating from the medieval period to the present day. Instruments of astronomy, navigation, surveying, drawing and calculating are well represented, as are sundials, mathematical instruments and early electrical apparatus.

The Whipple Museum was founded in 1944 when Robert Stewart Whipple presented his collection of scientific instruments to the University of Cambridge.

Since Robert Whipple’s initial gift of the collection, the Museum has come to house many instruments formerly used in the Colleges and Departments of the University of Cambridge.

Find out more about Whipple Museum.

Tsinghua Science Museum

Tsinghua University Science Museum (in development) is the first comprehensive university museum devoted to scientific collections in China. It presents scientific objects and high-tech interactive exhibitions to reproduce the great scientific discoveries and technological inventions in the history of science and technology, as well as the brilliant science and engineering achievements of Tsinghua University in modern China. The museum will become a new part of the Tsinghua landscape for promoting science communication and stimulating scientific and technological innovation.

There will be three permanent exhibition halls: The Occident Hall (showing the evolution of science and technology of the West); China Hall (showing ancient Chinese technologies and inventions); Tsinghua Hall (showing the development of science and technology of Tsinghua University). The temporary exhibition hall will house different thematic exhibitions by collecting valuable scientific and technological objects in China and abroad.

The permanent building is located at the open space between the Tsinghua University Art Museum and the Academy of Arts & Design building, which has a construction area of 15,000 square meters, including exhibition hall of 7,000 square meters. Before construction is completed, the Science Museum houses the exhibitions temperately on the B2 floor of Mong Man-wai Humanities Building.

Find out more about Tsinghua Science Museum.

Explore the Signatures of Things

Click into the circles to see the signature of every plant