History of European Ideas 46 (6):754-765 (2020)
AbstractABSTRACT This paper is concerned with landmarks in the history of the idea of cancerous contagiousness from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. The origins of the idea of cancerous contagiousness is considered on the basis of Galen’s distinction between scabiesleprosy, cancer and elephantiasis. Paul of Aegina established the association between these latter diseases. In the fourteenth century, a ‘new line of inquiry’ developed concerning the transmission of diseases like plague, and G. Fracastoro applied this approach by stating that putrefaction and inflammation notably produce elephantiasis, which is obviously contagious, as inflammation and heat, without putrefaction, produce cancer. J. Fernel applied the process of syphilitic contamination to ulcerated cancer, whose vapour ‘is widely dispersed’ and which ‘quickly kills by its malignancy’. G. Cardano reacted against these views, and declared that cancer was could not be transmitted by contact. But A. Zacuth and N. Tulp provided instances of such transmission. D. Sennert, who is often said to have accepted Zacuth’s testimony, was doubtful and suggested, rather than contagion, transmission by heredity. This type of explanation was privileged during Classical Age, until experiments on animals or human beings infected by cancerous liquid took place during the Enlightenment in France and England. Pichler finally recommended forbidding marriage between people suffering from cancer.
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