Founded in the ninth century in Salerno, Italy, the Schola Medica Salernitana was the first medical school of its kind, aimed at expanding medical knowledge and professionalizing the practice of medicine. It rose to prominence as one of the most important sources of medical knowledge in the world, due largely to Salerno’s cosmopolitan outlook – like most Italian city-states, it had diplomatic and commercial relations beyond Europe, particularly with the Muslims and Byzantines, who had a wealth of medical knowledge, both preserved and of their own making.
This is also reflected in the school’s legendary founding, which, on one account, is said to have occurred when a Greek, Latin, Jew, and Arab came together in their mutual interest in medicine to create an institution that would combine their respective traditions to advance the pursuit of medicine — a remarkably pragmatic and humanistic position for the time. (Indeed, Muslims, Jews, and Orthodox Christians were allowed as students.)
To that end, Islamic and Byzantine medical texts—both those preserved from ancient Greco-Roman sources and those devised by the Arabs—were part of the curriculum; famed healers like Hippocrates and Galen being studied alongside groundbreaking Muslim scholars, such as the Persian polymath Avicenna, the father of early modern medicine who literally wrote the book on the subject. His medical encyclopedia was a standard textbook in Salerno and other Medieval European schools for centuries.
Schooling consisted of three years of logic and five years of medicine, which included surgery and anatomy, followed by a year practice with an experienced physician, not unlike a residency. Every five years, an autopsy of a human body would be performed, and the school’s compendium of medical knowledge would be revised and expanded based on new observations and practices — an early and forward-thinking application of empirical evidence that is the bedrock of science.
The success of this model prompted other medical schools, such as in Bologna, Montpelier, and Paris, to adopt the philosophy of “Islamic medicine” and empiricism.
The practical approach to medicine—based on traditional Greco-Roman medical philosophy—that fueled Schola Medica Salernitana’s earlier success became antiquated in the light of a new theoretical approach to medicine based on Islamic advances in natural philosophy. Irrespective of its allegiance to an outmoded philosophical approach to medicine, the Salerno school still occupies an important position in the development of Western medicine. Specifically, it was one of the first precursors—if not the first—to modern medical pedagogy and practice, especially in terms of providing a formal curriculum for teaching medical knowledge.
Moreover, the literary output of the faculty alone would secure the school a significant position in the development of Western medicine. Besides its reputation for excellence in medical education and practice, the Salerno school also earned repute for the equal opportunities it afforded women to study and practice medicine. Although the impact of the Salerno school diminished over the centuries, beginning in the thirteenth century, the school did not officially close until 1811—certainly a testament to its importance in the history of medicine.
That is quite a legacy, especially from an era that is widely regarded as backward, uncivilized, and chauvinistic. It is amazing what sort of kernels of progress we find scattered throughout unlike times and places in history.