Galileo and the Elephant

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Galileo's clash with the church over Copernicism is a drama that is often replayed in the media and history books. The actions taken in the chambers of the Vatican and in the Jesuit Collegio Romano have become a vivid symbol of the clash between church and science. What is little known is that there was another scientific drama unfolding at the same time and in the same chambers. This drama, the search for and discovery of a remedy for malaria, would have more far reaching effects on the common citizen. The remedy, Jesuit's bark, would also work its influence on commerce, warfare and geopolitics around the world over the coming centuries.

Two of the key players in the Galileo Affair were Pope Urban VIII and the Jesuit scientists from the Collegio Romano. Pope Urban VIII had been a friend of Galileo's through much of his career but also played a major role in his trial and sentencing. The Jesuits are often positioned as foils for Galileo. Pope Urban VIII and the Jesuits had many other issues on their minds. The Jesuits in the Galileo Affair were involved in many of the important early developments in telescope technology ( see Telescope timeline ). But the telescope, like speculations on the motion of far off planets, did not affect the day to day lives of the European citizen. One issue that did affect the lives of citizens in different areas of Europe was mal'aria (Italian for bad air). It was the scourge of Rome and had become a serious problem in other parts of Europe and the American colonies. The same players from the Galileo Affair, Pope Urban VIII and the Jesuits, were major players in the search for and eventual discovery of a remedy for malaria, known then as Jesuit's Bark.

Pope Urban was the man who made the search for a cure for mal'aria a priority. He had personal reasons for wanting a cure for mal'aria. In 1623, just as he was being selected as Pope, he was stricken by malaria. For months he was too weak to manage the full duties expected of a pope. He was one of the lucky ones. Eight cardinals from the conclave that selected him as Pope had died from the dreaded disease. It is hardly surprising that Pope Urban would seek a cure and instruct the Jesuit missionaries to learn all they could about the medicines in the new territories. The search bore fruit very quickly, in part because the careful observations of the Jesuit naturalists in the Americas, and partly from pure luck. Augustino Salumbrino, a Jesuit apothecary in Lima, had noticed the Quecha natives in the foothills of the Andes using the bark of the cinchona tree to fight off chills. The center of the period map below is the area where Augusto observed the Quechas. Thinking that the bark might be used to fight off the chills that accompany malaria, he arranged for samples to be sent to Rome. The doctors in Rome discovered that the bark did more than fight off chills, it was actually a remedy for the disease. The active ingredient of cinchona was quinine, which is still used to fight off the disease.

Antique Map of Peru circa 1635

The use of Jesuit's bark would spread through Europe and around the world. Only a few decades after its introduction to Europe, Ramazzini was publicly comparing its importance to medicine with the importance of gunpowder to warfare. Jesuit's bark and its derivatives (quinine sulphate) would help shape the modern world, including enabling the European colonization of Africa and the completion of the Panama canal [_1_] .

In the Galileo Affair, Pope Urban and the Jesuits are often caricatured as blind defenders of the status quo. But the proven effectiveness of Jesuit's Bark was a serious challenge to the status quo. At the time, Galen was to medicine what Aristotle was to physics. Galen believed that all fevers could be treated the same way, that they were the result of an imbalance of humours, and that correcting this imbalance took several months. Jesuit's Bark only acted on specific fevers. The Bark also acted much more quickly than Galenic remedies.

The story behind the discovery of Jesuit's bark should warn us against drawing too many conclusions from single events or discoveries. A popular parable in several eastern traditions is the story of the blind men and the elephant. Six blind men are asked to determine what an elephant looked like. Depending on what part the blind men felt an elephant was like a wall (from the belly), a fan (from the ear), a branch (from the trunk), a spear (from the tusk), a pillar (from the leg) or a rope (from the tail). The parable highlights the danger of losing perspective from focusing too narrowly on parts and ignoring the whole. The image below is from a Japanese print on the parable.

Blind Men and Elephant

This parable applies to many discussions on church and science but especially to those that focus on Galileo. The laser-like focus on one period of Galileo's life ignores many other scientists and events over the two thousand year history of the church. This includes actual support by the church of Galileo's research during other periods of his life. With these treatments, the problem goes beyond missing the big picture, as warned by the parable. They even miss the small picture. The Galileo Affair is a drama that is supposed to symbolize the clash between church and science. But the same players in the Galileo Affair who are presented as symbols of the church's resistance to science were involved in other scientific dramas; dramas that would have much greater consequences for the average citizen of Europe and the world.

The blind men in the parable had little hope of getting a true picture of the elephant. It is no more reasonable to think that one set of events in Galileo's life would give us a true picture of the complex relationships between church and science.

Copyright Joseph Sant (2019).

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Sant, Joseph (2019).Galileo and the Elephant. Retrieved from


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1. Fiammetta Rocco, Harper Collins, The Miraculous Fever-Tree, , 25-83
This book by Fiammetta Rocco, relates her personal family history with malaria, then traces the history of the discovery and application of the cure for malaria, quinine. The original cure was a quinine-rich bark which became known as Jesuit's Bark. The book also relates some important battles which were largely decided by the disease and not by generals.