The correspondence of early modern physicians has come down to us in manuscripts in numerous libraries and archives in Germany and abroad. They are of outstanding value for historical research. From the perspective of medical and scientific history, physicians’ letters unveil a rich and varied picture of the lives, thoughts and conduct of early modern physicians. In their correspondence, the physicians commented on current topics and disputes in their discipline and discussed their own views and findings. They passed judgment on other authors and their works, ideas, or discoveries. In letters to patients and their relatives and in consultations and case histories they sent to colleagues, physicians also applied their general theories and explanatory models to the specific individual case.
At the same time, letters to colleagues and also other contemporaries were an indispensable networking tool for creating scientific contacts and patronage relationships. Epistolary networks facilitated the access to scientific innovations, to books, plants and other scientific specimina and they could significantly promote the status of the individual physician or naturalist. Physicians’ letters also include diverse information on the professional status and individual careers which are hardly accessible by other means. They report about everyday challenges and problems in dealing with colleagues and competitors, about the sometimes difficult relationship with patients and their families. They also tell about experiences and disputes with municipal employers and princely patrons, about conflicts and turf battles with non-academic surgeons and myriads of irregular healers and they shed light on numerous other aspects of contemporary medical culture.
Beyond the boundaries of medical and science history, physicians’ letters are also of great interest for work on numerous issues in the history of early modern society, culture, and everyday life, in general. Academically trained physicians represented an important and relatively homogenous group within the early modern urban bourgeoisie. They often counted among the intellectual elite and were crucial for the promotion of humanist culture. Even historians of literature, art and can discover interesting material here – e.g. in the form of the oldest known composition transmitted in a letter, found in the correspondence of Felix Platter, a doctor from Basel. Since physicians’ letters sometimes also addressed topics such as daily routines, housekeeping, wives and children, purchases and financial transactions as well as illness and death, they also offer precious insights into early modern urban (and sometimes courtly) world. Last but not least, the physicians and their correspondence partners also commented time and again on the big issues of their times, e.g. on political and confessional disputes or on important events like natural disasters, witch trials or miraculous phenomena.
To this day, early modern physicians’ letters have not been studied systematically, and only a small part has been published in print. Against this backdrop, the project Early Modern Physicians’ Correspondence undertakes a systematic survey of the numerous letters written by and to physicians between 1500 and 1700 and makes them accessible to historical research in an online database to historical research, ideally with extensive summaries of the contents. This way a continuously growing virtual collection is established which allows scholars from the entire range of humanities to identify among tens of thousands of letters specifically those, possibly only very few, that mention subjects, works, theories, people, institutions, or places which are relevant for their respective research. Due to the limits of time and manpower, the project focuses on letters by and to physicians from the (then) German language area. It is hoped, however, that it may find imitators in other countries and for the following time periods with an even more extensive manuscript tradition. The database is continuously growing, and the project is scheduled to conclude its work in 2023.