Roger Bacon

Was Roger Bacon Europe's first real scientist?

This 13th-century English monk recognized that going to the source of phenomena was the surest way to understand them.

Roger Bacon

Statue of Roger Bacon at Oxford

Bacon was born in Ilchester, in Somerset, around the time King John granted the English nobles some important rights in the Magna Carta of 1215. Education was apparently an important value in his family, and he went to Oxford University probably at about age 13.

Bacon lectured at the University of Paris and pursued a life of dogged intellectual inquiry at a time when unorthodox opinions were dangerous — even fatal. At about the age of 40, he became a Franciscan friar, which limited his ability to publish his works, as any writings had to be approved by his order.

About 10 years later, though, his friend Guy le Gros de Foulques became Pope Clement IV. During the few years of Clement's reign, Bacon published his Opus Maius, about science and theology, and other works.

Bacon understood that mathematics was crucial to understanding science. He refused to accept received knowledge without testing out its tenets with experiments — and at the time, the scholarly world was all about received knowledge from the ancients.

He created the first useful maps in hundreds of years by re-introducing map projections, he was a pioneer in the field of optics, and he began a reformation of the calendar that was adopted hundreds of years later by Pope Gregory XIII.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

An ill wind indeed

The Black Plague, which wiped out perhaps a third of the population of Europe, demanded an explanation, and the medical establishment of the time responded as well as it could.

The most popular conjectures about the pestilence were variations on the miasmic theory of disease, an idea that went back at least to the ancient Greeks — that disease was essentially bad air. ("Miasma" was the Greek word for pollution.)

Hundreds of treatises about the epidemic survive, many of them written in the mid-14th century, when the plague was at its height. One written by members of the faculty at the medical school at the University of Paris, in response to a request from their king, Philip VI, mixed humoral and miasmic theories: The planets had aligned in such a way as to poison the air.

Another theory held that a series of earthquakes in Europe had released corrupt air from the middle of the earth. A third had the plague wafting in on noxious winds from the equator.

The cause of the plague was actually Yersinia pestis, a murderous bacterium spread by the bite of rodent fleas in the primary, "bubonic" phase, characterized by swollen lymph nodes and other symptoms. The plague can also be spread by infected droplets exhaled by its victims in a less common but deadlier "pneumonic" phase.

The plague was a catastrophe for Europe, but it did usher in reforms. It pushed the medical community toward a more professional approach to its practice, an increased emphasis on public health and the establishment of hospitals that would treat the sick, rather than merely warehouse them away from the healthy population, according to The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe, by Robert S. Gottfried.

Frustration with the utter failure of the medical establishment to discern the pandemic's cause, stop its spread or treat it effectively helped create an environment from which the scientific method emerged.