The Amazing Travails of Tobias Cohn, Inventor of Modern Medicine

Eleazar Cohn, a Jewish physician, emigrated from Safed (then part of the Ottoman) to Poland in the late 1500’s – early 1600’s.  Eleazar’s son, Moses, also a physician, moved to Metz, France to escape the Chmielnicki (Khmelnytsky ) pogroms.  Tobias Cohn (Cohen, or Kohn in Polish) was born in 1652 in Metz.  At age 21, Tobias returned to Poland with his elder brother where he pursued traditional Jewish studies  in Kraków .

First Jewish Student in Germany

Portrait_of_Tobias_Cohn_Wellcome_L0014928Coming from a renowned family of physicians, Tobias ultimately wanted to graduate with a medical degree from the University of Padua (Margalith, 2007,) the Harvard of the time…  But he decided to try to get into the Frankfurt-an-der-Oder University first.  In 1678, Tobias and his friend Gabriel Felix of Brody appealed directly to the Grand Elector of the State of Brandenburg Friedrich Wilhelm who agreed to sponsor their studies.  The scholarships came with conditions: Tobias and Gabriel had to learn German and volunteer as Hebrew teachers to Friedrich Wilhelm. Wilhelm was interested in “going back to the sources” of the Old Testament, spurred by the Protestant Reformation. Tobias Cohn later wrote that his knowledge of the Scriptures, the Talmud and the Midrash had not prepared him well for the scientific approach that was taught at the school and for the interactions with other students [1]

Padua

Related imageTobias and Gabriel eventually left Frankfurt for Padua, where they joined a number of Jewish students from Italy, Poland and other European countries at Solomon Canegliano‘s (1642-1719) preparatory school. Tobias described Canegliano as one of the greatest physicians of his time.  Tobias and Gabriel eventually entered the University of Padua and graduated in June 1683.  The first Jewish medical students graduated from the University of Padua in the fifteenth century.  For most of the Middle Ages and the early Modern Period, Padua was the only medical school in Europe where Jewish students could study freely.

Ma’aseh Tuviyah, 1708

In 1700, Tobias Cohn completed the manuscript of his book “Ma’aseh Tuviyah,” meaning Tobias’ Works, or Opus, in Hebrew.  The book was officially published in June 1708 (or 1707) by the University of Padua.  The book was printed a total of five times in Venice between 1708 and 1850, followed by seven further editions most recently in Brooklyn, New York, in 1974, and in Jerusalem, in 1967 and 1978.

The book brings together a view of the “new sciences” with the traditional Jewish view of science and medicine.  The first part of the book covers five chapters:

  • ‘The Upper World’ (corresponding more or less to metaphysics),
  • ‘The World of the Spheres’ (astronomy),
  • ‘The Lower World’ (geography),
  • ‘The Little World’ or ‘Microcosm’ (ethnography), and
  • ‘The Foundations of the World’ (alchemy).

The second part includes three main chapters:

  • ‘A New Land’,
  • ‘A New House’ and
  • ‘The House Watch’ or ‘Guard’.

This corresponds to the traditional division of medical texts into three parts: physiology, pathology and therapy (limited here to hygiene). A third part includes:

  • ‘A Garden Enclosed’ (gynecology and obstetrics),
  • ‘Fruit of the Womb’ (pediatrics), and
  • ‘A Fountain Sealed’ (on sterility).

The chapter titles in the first part of the book relate to the idea of the “world”, and those of the second part to the theme of novelty and the house. The headings in the third part all derive from the Bible, particularly the Song of Songs (Lepicard.) The book also includes a section on medical botany and a list of remedies.

The House Metaphor

Another important feature of the book is the scientific and medical illustrations it provides.

s130

The illustration above is part of a chapter on pathology in the medical part of the book, the section entitled ‘A New House’.  To the left of the illustration is the figure of a man with an open chest and abdomen, exposing the main internal organs.  A Hebrew scroll separates this figure from that of a house with four floors on the right of the illustration (Lepicard.)  In accordance with common practice in anatomy texts of the period, the organs are marked with letters.  On the scroll, the letters, in alphabetical order, are followed by the name of the designated part of the house, and that of the corresponding organ.

Where is the heart?  The reference letters and accompanying text show that the cauldron is located in the kitchen of the house. It represents the stomach. The heart is on the floor above, hidden behind a latticework grille. The heart belongs on the upper floor as Tobias said, where it can benefit from fresh air without being too exposed.  The “kitchen” level below corresponds to the bodily functions as understood at the time.  Tobias’s decision to write his book in Hebrew was likely driven by his desire to bring the “new science” to his Jewish community.

On the Road Again…

After Padua, Tobias Cohn went back to Poland and practiced medicine for a while then moved to Adrianopole (today’s city of Edirne close to Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria.)  There, he became the physician to five Ottoman sultans (Muntner, 2007,) moving to Constantinople (Today’s Istanbul) then Jerusalem in 1724 until his death at the age of 77 in 1729.

 

Footnotes and Sources

[1] Louis Lewin, The Jewish students at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, in: Yearbook of the Jewish Literary Society 14 (1921), S. 231 f See also Richarz, entry, p.34…

David Margalith, Cohn, Tobias ben Moses, in: Encyclopedia Judaica: Bd. V, Detroit 2  2007, S. 44 f.; Asher Salah, La République des Lettres. Rabbins, écrivains et médecins juifs en Italie au XVIII siècle, Leiden/Boston 2007, S. 182-184.

Carsten Schliwski, Tobias Kohen (1652-1729) – the first Jewish student in Germany: Tobias Kohen as a Jewish student in Germany, from: Andreas Speer, Andreas Berger

A convincing case for accepting that Tobias Kohen and his friend were in fact the first Jewish student (Lewin, students, S. 222-226.)

Tobias Kohen, Ma’asseh Tuviyyah. Vol. 1, Venice 1707, pp. 5b.  The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America owns a first edition of Maaseh Tuviah, with the call number of RB 144:4. The book was published in Hebrew and consists of one volume containing multiple works, for a total of 321 pages.

 

David B Ruderman, Jewish thought and scientific discovery in early modern Europe, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2001(c. 1995), pp. 100–17, 229–55.

For biographic information, see also J O Leibowitz, ‘Tobie Cohen, auteur médical de langue hébraïque (1652–1729)’, Revue d’Histoire de la Médecine Hébraïque, 1964, 63: 15–24.

Solomon Conegliano, ‘Preface to Ma’aseh Tuviyah’ (in Hebrew), in Tobias Cohen, Ma’aseh Tuviyah, Venice, 1708. It is not unusual to find 1707 as the date of publication. The Hebrew date (tav-samekh-zayin – 5467) can correspond both to 1707 and to 1708.

D. Kaufmann, ‘Trois docteurs de Padoue: Tobias Moschides – Gabriel Selig b. Mose-Isak Wallich’, Rev. Etudes Juives, 1889, 19:293-298.

D. Kaufmann, ‘Une lettre de Gabriel Felix Moschides’, Rev. Etudes Juives, 1896, 32: 134-137.

Figure 1. Tobias Cohn (1652-1729). From T. Cohn, Ma aseh Tobivvah. Venice, Stamparia Bragadina, [1708], front. engr. (Copy in the Wellcome Institute Library, London.)

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What’s in the Jewish DNA?

Sefer Ma’asei HaShem by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi. This edition printed in  The Hague, 1777.

Sefer Ma’asei HaShem by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi. This edition printed in The Hague, 1777.

Unlike many other ancient people and tribes, and despite intense persecution and tragedies, the Jewish people has managed to survive for over 5 millennia,   The destruction of the first and second temples,  the expulsion from Spain, pogroms in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust are but a few of the calamities that almost wiped out the Jews.  What is in the Jewish DNA that has enabled its People to survive to this day?  I don’t mean DNA in the biological sense (there are studies on this) but in the societal sense.  What is it about the Jewish value and belief system that has enabled us to survive?

One element is the ability and capacity to question and analyze ourselves (“Heshbon ha-nefesh” in Hebrew) and the world around us.  Why was the temple destroyed when God is supposed to be on our side?  This important question led the Jews to fundamentally question their religion and practices, resulting in many movements and sects, each with their own answers, leading to Rabbinic Judaism as we pretty much know it today.  This urge to analyze and re-calibrate is perhaps most evident in the Rabbinic tradition of debating and interpreting the written texts of the Bible.  In 1583, Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi wrote in “Ma’asei Hashem”:

For in all that affects human faith…each one of us…is bound until the end of all generations to investigate the secrets within the words of the Torah and to conduct his faith in the straightest and most correct way…and to accept the truth from whatever source,once we know of it.  And let not the opinion of others, though they preceded us, hinder us from inquiry.

In the Judaic tradition, belief in renewal comes from respect for mature and intelligent interpretation of the texts, and even self-criticism. Heshbon ha-nefesh (self-examination) is a necessary condition for teshuva (repentance and renewal).   So what’s in the Jewish DNA?  One the one hand, a stark adherence to the concept of One God, and to an enlightened system of values, but on the other, an unrivaled capacity for interpretation of the application of this value system, which over the centuries has enabled the Jewish People to survive.