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Jole Shackelford

History of medicine professor Jole Shackelford

When religion and medicine collide

Professor's Fulbright will support historical research in Norway

By Lori Janies

December 7, 2005

Jole Shackelford sees nothing contradictory about being a science scholar who feels "called" to research religious history.

"My interest in the religious is not motivated by religion," says Shackelford, an adjunct assistant professor for the University's Program in the History of Medicine and recipient of a Fulbright Scholar grant for 2006. "People are mystified by that, but I have no problem with it. Natural philosophy, religion, medicine, pharmacy--they are all connected and crossing each other. I'm interested in how they affect decisions."

Shackelford is one of five University faculty and staff members awarded Fulbright Scholar grants for special research projects during the 2005-06 academic year. The other winners include John Gulliver, the Joseph T. and Rose S. Ling Professor of Civil Engineering; Roberta Hunt, teaching specialist, School of Nursing; Sally Kenney, professor and director of the Center on Women and Public Policy in the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs; and Kathleen Sellew, associate director, Office of International Programs.

"Natural philosophy, religion, medicine, pharmacy--they are all connected and crossing each other. I'm interested in how they affect decisions."

With his grant, Shackelford will travel to Bergen, Norway, this spring to research the role that religion and the prevailing religious climate played in the lives and work of two 17th-century physicians, Ole Worm of Denmark and his German student, Ambrosius Rhodius.

Worm and Rhodius lived in a tumultuous time, when religion and medicine were indelibly intertwined and Lutheranism--then the official religion of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway--was becoming increasingly orthodox and conservative.

"There were no atheists back then, in the modern sense of the word," Shackelford says. "There were only people who had 'right' beliefs and 'wrong' beliefs. Religion was playing an important role in defining who was legitimate."

One group of physicians who found themselves increasingly on the "wrong" side of the theological and political debate were known as Paracelsians, who espoused the methods and beliefs of 16th-century Swiss physician Theophrastus Paracelsus.

Paracelsians believed that living things--defined as animals, vegetables, and minerals--possessed a spirit that could be extracted and used as medicines. To that end, some more radical Paracelsians experimented with distilling human fat and human blood to concentrate this spiritual agent into a "vital balsam," or "radical moisture."

"It was a divine gift that they were distilling in the laboratory and giving to people," Shackelford says. "The orthodox religious community really found this offensive and fought tooth and nail against these people."

Worm's beliefs are an enigma to Shackelford. While not a Paracelsian, Worm believed in some aspects of Paracelsian philosophy, such as the use of chemical drugs. Shackelford speculates that Worm may have kept quiet about his own religious beliefs to protect his status as a prominent physician, natural philosopher, and collector of curiosities.

Shackelford hopes to piece together a better picture of Worm's religious beliefs during his semester in Norway. Likewise, he hopes some documents in northern Norway will yield clues to religion's role in the fall of Worm's student, Rhodius, who was a Paracelsian and ultimately ran afoul of authorities and landed, with his wife, in an arctic prison. "Here are two stories that are interleaved because they are coming from the same medical background and possibly the same religious background," Shackelford says. "There is more to be known and it's part of my quest."

Shackelford says he is delighted the Fulbright grant will allow him to pursue his research. This year, about 850 U.S. faculty and professionals received Fulbright grants to lecture and conduct research abroad, and a similar number of foreign scholars received awards to come to the United States as researchers. The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sponsors the program.

"The grant means a lot to me, on a number of different levels," Shackelford says. "The basic idea behind Fulbright, of course, is facilitating cultural exchange. It's really about putting people in contact with other cultures and bringing their own culture with them. And as corny as that sounds, it's something I really believe in."

Shackelford's interest in the history of science and medicine began when he was a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, five years into his undergraduate studies. He took History of Astronomy, a pivotal class that started him down a path to a new major and a series of degrees in the history of science, culminating in his Ph.D. in 1989.

His interest in Norway and Scandinavia might also be traced to his college days, when he fell in love with his Norwegian teacher. The two were married in 1977 and Frankie Shackelford, now a professor of Norwegian at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, will accompany him to Norway next year.

"Since my wife teaches at a Lutheran college, she talks a lot about 'the call' and what it means to find your vocation," Shackelford says. "My profession is my calling and I love it."

For information about the other four Fulbright research scholars, see the news release.