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The History of Western Medicine

Primitive medicine and folklore


Unwritten history is not easy to interpret, and, although much may be learned from a study of the drawings, bony remains, and surgical tools of early man, it is difficult to reconstruct his mental attitude toward the problems of disease and death. It seems probable that humans, as soon as they had reached the stage of reasoning, discovered, by the process of trial and error, which plants might be used as foods, which of them were poisonous, and which of them had some medicinal value. Folk medicine or domestic medicine, consisting largely in the use of vegetable products, or herbs, originated in this fashion and still persists.

But that is not the whole story. Man did not at first regard death and disease as natural phenomena. Common maladies, such as colds or constipation, were accepted as part of existence and dealt with by means of such herbal remedies as were available. Serious and disabling diseases, however, were placed in a very different category. These were of supernatural origin. They might be the result of a spell cast upon the victim by some enemy, visitation by a malevolent demon, or the work of an offended god who had either projected some object—a dart, a stone, a worm—into the body of the victim or had abstracted something, usually the soul of the patient. The treatment then applied was to lure the errant soul back to its proper habitat within the body or to extract the evil intruder, be it dart or demon, by counterspells, incantations, potions, suction, or other means.

One curious method of providing the disease with means of escape from the body was by making a hole, 2.5 to five centimetres across, in the skull of the victim—the practice of trepanning, or trephining. Trepanned skulls of prehistoric date have been found in Britain, France, and other parts of Europe and in Peru. Many of them show evidence of healing and, presumably, of the patient’s survival. The practice still exists among primitive people in parts of Algeria, in Melanesia, and perhaps elsewhere, though it is fast becoming extinct.

Magic and religion played a large part in the medicine of prehistoric or primitive man. Administration of a vegetable drug or remedy by mouth was accompanied by incantations, dancing, grimaces, and all the tricks of the magician. Therefore, the first doctors, or “medicine men,” were witch doctors or sorcerers. The use of charms and talismans, still prevalent in modern times, is of ancient origin.

Apart from the treatment of wounds and broken bones, the folklore of medicine is probably the most ancient aspect of the art of healing, for primitive physicians showed their wisdom by treating the whole person, soul as well as body. Treatments and medicines that produced no physical effects on the body could nevertheless make a patient feel better when both medicine man and patient believed in their efficacy. This so-called placebo effect is applicable even in modern clinical medicine.

The ancient Middle East and Egypt

The establishment of the calendar and the invention of writing marked the dawn of recorded history. The clues to early knowledge are scanty, consisting of clay tablets bearing cuneiform signs and seals that were used by physicians of ancient Mesopotamia. In the Louvre there is preserved a stone pillar on which is inscribed the Code of Hammurabi, who was a Babylonian king of the 18th century bc. This code includes laws relating to the practice of medicine, and the penalties for failure were severe. For example, “If the doctor, in opening an abscess, shall kill the patient, his hands shall be cut off”; if, however, the patient was a slave, the doctor was simply obliged to supply another slave.

The Greek historian Herodotus stated that every Babylonian was an amateur physician, since it was the custom to lay the sick in the street so that anyone passing by might offer advice. Divination, from the inspection of the liver of a sacrificed animal, was widely practiced to foretell the course of a disease. Little else is known regarding Babylonian medicine, and the name of not a single physician has survived.

Imhotep reading a papyrus roll, detail of a sculpture
[Credits : Courtesy of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum]  When the medicine of ancient Egypt is examined, the picture becomes clearer. The first physician to emerge is Imhotep, chief minister to King Djoser in the 3rd millennium bc, who designed one of the earliest pyramids, the Step Pyramid at Ṣaqqārah, and who was later regarded as the Egyptian god of medicine and identified with the Greek god Asclepius. Surer knowledge comes from the study of Egyptian papyri, especially the Ebers and Edwin Smith papyri discovered in the 19th century. The former is a list of remedies, with appropriate spells or incantations, while the latter is a surgical treatise on the treatment of wounds and other injuries.

Contrary to what might be expected, the widespread practice of embalming the dead body did not stimulate study of human anatomy. The preservation of mummies has, however, revealed some of the diseases suffered at that time, including arthritis, tuberculosis of the bone, gout, tooth decay, bladder stones, and gallstones; there is evidence too of the parasitic disease schistosomiasis, which remains a scourge still. There seems to have been no syphilis or rickets.

The search for information on ancient medicine leads naturally from the papyri of Egypt to Hebrew literature. Though the Bible contains little on the medical practices of Old Testament times, it is a mine of information on social and personal hygiene. The Jews were indeed pioneers in matters of public health.

Traditional medicine and surgery in the Orient » India
Indian medicine has a long history. Its earliest concepts are set out in the sacred writings called the Vedas, especially in the metrical passages of the Atharvaveda, which may possibly date as far back as the 2nd millennium bc. According to a later writer, the system of medicine called Āyurveda was received by a certain Dhanvantari from Brahma, and Dhanvantari was deified as the god of medicine. In later times his status was gradually reduced, until he was credited with having been an earthly king who died of snakebite.

The period of Vedic medicine lasted until about 800 bc. The Vedas are rich in magical practices for the treatment of diseases and in charms for the expulsion of the demons traditionally supposed to cause diseases. The chief conditions mentioned are fever (takman), cough, consumption, diarrhea, dropsy, abscesses, seizures, tumours, and skin diseases (including leprosy). The herbs recommended for treatment are numerous.

The golden age of Indian medicine, from 800 bc until about ad 1000, was marked especially by the production of the medical treatises known as the Caraka-saṃhitā and Suśruta-saṃhitā, attributed, respectively, to Caraka, a physician, and Suśruta, a surgeon. Estimates place the Caraka-saṃhitā in its present form as dating from the 1st century ad, although there were earlier versions. The Suśruta-saṃhitā probably originated in the last centuries bc and had become fixed in its present form by the 7th century ad. Of somewhat lesser importance are the treatises attributed to Vagbhata. All later writings on Indian medicine were based on these works.

Because Hindus were prohibited by their religion from cutting the dead body, their knowledge of anatomy was limited. The Suśruta-saṃhitā recommends that a body be placed in a basket and sunk in a river for seven days. On its removal the parts could be easily separated without cutting. As a result of these crude methods, the emphasis in Hindu anatomy was given first to the bones and then to the muscles, ligaments, and joints. The nerves, blood vessels, and internal organs were very imperfectly known.

The Hindus believed that the body contains three elementary substances, microcosmic representatives of the three divine universal forces, which they called spirit (air), phlegm, and bile (comparable to the humours of the Greeks). Health depends on the normal balance of these three elementary substances. The seven primary constituents of the body—blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow, chyle, and semen—are produced by the action of the elementary substances. Semen was thought to be produced from all parts of the body and not from any individual part or organ.

Both Caraka and Suśruta state the existence of a large number of diseases (Suśruta says 1,120). Rough classifications of diseases are given. In all texts “fever,” of which numerous types are described, is regarded as important. Phthisis (wasting disease, especially pulmonary tuberculosis) was apparently prevalent, and the Hindu physicians knew the symptoms of cases likely to terminate fatally. Smallpox was common, and it is probable that smallpox inoculation was practiced.

Hindu physicians employed all five senses in diagnosis. Hearing was used to distinguish the nature of the breathing, alteration in voice, and the grinding sound produced by the rubbing together of broken ends of bones. They appear to have had a good clinical sense, and their discourses on prognosis contain acute references to symptoms that have grave import. Magical beliefs still persisted, however, until late in the classical period; thus, the prognosis could be affected by such fortuitous factors as the cleanliness of the messenger sent to fetch the physician, the nature of his conveyance, or the types of persons the physician met on his journey to the patient.

Dietetic treatment was important and preceded any medicinal treatment. Fats were much used, internally and externally. The most important methods of active treatment were referred to as the “five procedures”: the administration of emetics, purgatives, water enemas, oil enemas, and sneezing powders. Inhalations were frequently administered, as were leeching, cupping, and bleeding.

The Indian materia medica was extensive and consisted mainly of vegetable drugs, all of which were from indigenous plants. Caraka knew 500 medicinal plants, and Suśruta knew 760. But animal remedies (such as the milk of various animals, bones, gallstones) and minerals (sulfur, arsenic, lead, copper sulfate, gold) were also employed. The physicians collected and prepared their own vegetable drugs. Among those that eventually appeared in Western pharmacopoeias were cardamom and cinnamon.

As a result of the strict religious beliefs of the Hindus, hygienic measures were important in treatment. Two meals a day were decreed, with indications of the nature of the diet, the amount of water to be drunk before and after the meal, and the use of condiments. Bathing and care of the skin were carefully prescribed, as were cleansing of the teeth with twigs from named trees, anointing of the body with oil, and the use of eyewashes.

In surgery, ancient Hindu medicine reached its zenith. Operations performed by Hindu surgeons included excision of tumours, incision and draining of abscesses, punctures to release fluid in the abdomen, extraction of foreign bodies, repair of anal fistulas, splinting of fractures, amputations, cesarean sections, and stitching of wounds.

A broad array of surgical instruments were used. According to Suśruta the surgeon should be equipped with 20 sharp and 101 blunt instruments of various descriptions. The instruments were largely of steel. Alcohol seems to have been used as a narcotic during operations, and bleeding was stopped by hot oils and tar.

In two types of operations especially, the Hindus were outstanding. Stone in the bladder (vesical calculus) was common in ancient India, and the surgeons frequently removed the stones by lateral lithotomy. They also introduced plastic surgery. Amputation of the nose was one of the prescribed punishments for adultery, and repair was carried out by cutting from the patient’s cheek or forehead a piece of tissue of the required size and shape and applying it to the stump of the nose. The results appear to have been tolerably satisfactory, and the modern operation is certainly derived indirectly from this ancient source. Hindu surgeons also operated on cataracts by couching, or displacing the lens to improve vision.

Traditional medicine and surgery in the Orient » China
The Chinese system of medicine is of great antiquity and is independent of any recorded external influences. According to legend, Emperor Huang Ti (the Yellow Emperor) wrote the canon of internal medicine called the Nei ching in the 3rd millennium bc; but there is some evidence that in its present form it dates from no earlier than the 3rd century bc. Most of the Chinese medical literature is founded on the Nei ching, and it is still regarded as a great authority. Other famous works are the Mo ching (known in the West as the “Pulse Classic”), composed about ad 300; and the Golden Mirror, a compilation, made about ad 1700, of medical writings of the Han dynasty (202 bcad 220). European medicine began to obtain a footing in China early in the 19th century, but the native system is still widely practiced.

Basic to traditional Chinese medicine is the dualistic cosmic theory of the yin and the yang. The yang, the male principle, is active and light and is represented by the heavens; the yin, the female principle, is passive and dark and is represented by the earth. The human body, like matter in general, is made up of five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. With these are associated other groups of five, such as the five planets, the five conditions of the atmosphere, the five colours, and the five tones. Health, character, and the success of all political and private ventures are determined by the preponderance, at the time, of the yin or the yang; and the great aim of ancient Chinese medicine is to control their proportions in the body.

The teachings of the religious sects forbade the mutilation of the dead human body; hence traditional anatomy rests on no sure scientific foundation. One of the most important writers on anatomy, Wang Ch’ing-jen, gained his knowledge from the inspection of dog-torn children who had died in a plague epidemic in ad 1798. Traditional Chinese anatomy is based on the cosmic system, which postulates the presence of such hypothetical structures as the 12 channels and the three so-called burning spaces. The body contains five organs (heart, lungs, liver, spleen, and kidneys), which store up but do not eliminate; and five viscera (such as the stomach, intestines, gallbladder, and bladder), which eliminate but do not store up. Each organ is associated with one of the planets, colours, tones, smells, and tastes. There are 365 bones and 365 joints in the body.

According to the physiology of traditional Chinese medicine, the blood vessels contain blood and air, in proportions varying with those of the yin and the yang. These two cosmic principles circulate in the 12 channels and control the blood vessels and hence the pulse. The Nei ching says that “the blood current flows continuously in a circle and never stops. It may be compared to a circle without beginning or end.” On this insubstantial evidence it has been claimed that the Chinese anticipated Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. Traditional Chinese pathology is also dependent on the theory of the yin and the yang; this led to an elaborate classification of diseases in which most of the types listed are without scientific foundation.

In diagnosis, detailed questions are asked about the history of the illness and about such things as the patient’s taste, smell, and dreams. Conclusions are drawn from the quality of the voice, and note is made of the colour of the face and of the tongue. The most important part of the investigation, however, is the examination of the pulse. Wang Shu-ho, who wrote the “Pulse Classic,” lived in the 3rd century bc, and innumerable commentaries were written on his work. The pulse is examined in several places, at different times, and with varying degrees of pressure. The operation may take as long as three hours. It is often the only examination made, and it is used both for diagnosis and for prognosis. Not only are the diseased organs ascertained but the time of death or recovery may be foretold.

The Chinese materia medica has always been extensive and consists of vegetable, animal (including human), and mineral remedies. There were famous herbals from ancient times; but all these, to the number of about 1,000, were embodied by Li Shih-chen in the compilation of Pen-ts’ao kang-mu (the “Great Pharmacopoeia”) in the 16th century ad. This work, in 52 volumes, has been frequently revised and reprinted and is still authoritative. The use of drugs is mainly to restore the harmony of the yin and the yang and is also related to such matters as the five organs, the five planets, and the five colours. The art of prescribing is therefore complex.

Among the drugs taken over by Western medicine from the Chinese are rhubarb, iron (for anemia), castor oil, kaolin, aconite, camphor, and Cannabis sativa (Indian hemp). Chaulmoogra oil was used by the Chinese for leprosy from at least the 14th century, and about a century ago it began to be used for this purpose by Western physicians. The herb mahuang (Ephedra vulgaris) has been used in China for at least 4,000 years, and the isolation of the alkaloid ephedrine from it has greatly improved the Western treatment of asthma and similar conditions.

The most famous and expensive of Chinese remedies is ginseng. Western analysis has shown that it has diuretic and other properties but is of doubtful value. In recent years reserpine, the active principle of the Chinese plant Rauwolfia, has been isolated; it is now effectively used in the treatment of high blood pressure and some emotional and mental conditions.

Hydrotherapy is probably of Chinese origin, since cold baths were used for fevers as early as 180 bc. The inoculation of smallpox matter, in order to produce a mild but immunizing attack of the disease, was practiced in China from ancient times and came to Europe about 1720. Another treatment is moxibustion, which consists in making a small, moistened cone (moxa) of powdered leaves of mugwort, or wormwood (Artemisia species), applying it to the skin, igniting it, and then crushing it into the blister so formed. Other substances are also used for the moxa. Dozens of these are sometimes applied at one sitting. The practice is often associated with acupuncture.

Acupuncture consists of the insertion into the skin and underlying tissues of a metal needle, either hot or cold. The theory is that the needle affects the distribution of the yin and the yang in the hypothetical channels and burning spaces of the body. The site of the insertion is chosen to affect a particular organ or organs. The practice of acupuncture dates from before 2500 bc and is peculiarly Chinese. Little of practical importance has been added since that date, although there have been many well-known treatises on the subject.

A bronze model, c. ad 860, shows the hundreds of specified points for the insertion of the needle; this was the forerunner of countless later models and diagrams. The needles used are three to 24 centimetres (about one to nine inches) in length. They are often inserted with considerable force and after insertion may be agitated or screwed to the left or right. Acupuncture, often combined with moxibustion, is still widely used for many diseases, including fractures. Recently people in the Western world have turned to acupuncturists for relief from pain and other symptoms. There is some speculation that the treatment may trigger the brain to release morphinelike substances called endorphins, which presumably reduce the feeling of pain and its concomitant emotions.

Traditional medicine and surgery in the Orient » Japan
The most interesting features of Japanese medicine are the extent to which it was derivative and the rapidity with which, after a slow start, it became westernized and scientific. In the early pre-Christian Era disease was regarded as sent by the gods or produced by the influence of evil spirits. Treatment and prevention were based largely on religious practices, such as prayers, incantations, and exorcism; at a later date drugs and bloodletting were also employed.

Beginning in ad 608, when young Japanese physicians were sent to China for a long period of study, Chinese influence on Japanese medicine was paramount. In 982, Tamba Yasuyori completed the 30-volume Ishinhō, the oldest Japanese medical work still extant. This work discusses diseases and their treatment, classified mainly according to the affected organs or parts. It is based entirely on older Chinese medical works, with the yin and yang concept underlying the theory of disease causation.

In 1570 a 15-volume medical work was published by Menase Dōsan, who also wrote at least five other works. In the most significant of these, the Keitekishū (a manual of the practice of medicine, 1574), diseases—or sometimes merely symptoms—are classified and described in 51 groups; the work is unusual in that it includes a section on the diseases of old age. Another distinguished physician and teacher of the period, Nagata Tokuhun, whose important books were the I-no-ben (1585) and the Baika mujinzo (1611), held that the chief aim of the medical art was to support the natural force, and consequently that it was useless to persist with stereotyped methods of treatment unless the physician had the cooperation of the patient.

European medicine was introduced into Japan in the 16th century by Jesuit missionaries and again in the 17th century by Dutch physicians. Translations of European books on anatomy and internal medicine were made in the 18th century, and in 1836 an influential Japanese work on physiology appeared. In 1857 a group of Dutch-trained Japanese physicians founded a medical school in Edo (later Tokyo) that is regarded as the beginning of the medical faculty of the Imperial University of Tokyo.

During the last third of the 18th century it became government policy to westernize Japanese medicine, and great progress was made in the foundation of medical schools and the encouragement of research. Important medical breakthroughs by the Japanese followed, among them the discovery of the plague bacillus in 1894, the discovery of a dysentery bacillus in 1897, the isolation of adrenaline (epinephrine) in crystalline form in 1901, and the first experimental production of a tar-induced cancer in 1918.

The roots of Western medicine » Early Greece
Asclepius, from an ivory diptych, 5th century ad; in the Liverpool City Museum, England
[Credits : The Bridgeman Art Library/Art Resource, New York]  The transition from magic to science was a gradual process that lasted for centuries, and there is little doubt that ancient Greece inherited much from Babylonia and Egypt, and even India and China. Twentieth-century readers of the Homeric tales the Iliad and the Odyssey may well be bewildered by the narrow distinction between gods and men among the characters and between historical fact and poetic fancy in the story. Two characters, the military surgeons Podaleirius and Machaon, are said to have been sons of Asclepius, the god of medicine. The divine Asclepius may have originated in a human Asclepius who lived about 1200 bc and is said to have performed many miracles of healing.

Asclepius was worshiped in hundreds of temples throughout Greece, the remains of which may still be seen at Epidaurus, Cos, Athens, and elsewhere. To these resorts, or hospitals, sick persons went for the healing ritual known as incubation, or temple sleep. They lay down to sleep in the dormitory, or abaton, and were visited in their dreams by Asclepius or by one of his priests, who gave advice. In the morning the patient often is said to have departed cured. There are at Epidaurus many inscriptions recording cures, though there is no mention of failures or deaths.

Diet, baths, and exercises played their part in the treatment, and it would appear that these temples were the prototype of modern health resorts. Situated in a peaceful spot, with gardens and fountains, each had its theatre for amusements and its stadium for athletic contests. The cult of incubation continued far into the Christian Era. In Greece, some of the Aegean islands, Sardinia, and Sicily, sick persons are still taken to spend a night in certain churches in the hope of a cure.

It was, however, the work of the early philosophers, rather than that of the priests of Asclepius, that impelled Greeks to refuse to be guided solely by supernatural influence and moved them to seek out for themselves the causes and reasons for the strange ways of nature. The 6th-century philosopher Pythagoras, whose chief discovery was the importance of numbers, also investigated the physics of sound, and his views influenced the medical thought of his time. In the 5th century bc Empedocles set forth the view that the universe is composed of four elements—fire, air, earth, and water; this conception led to the doctrine of the four bodily humours: blood; phlegm; choler, or yellow bile; and melancholy, or black bile. The maintenance of health was held to depend upon the harmony of the four humours.

The roots of Western medicine » Hippocrates
Hippocrates, Roman bust copied from a Greek original, c. 3rd century bc; in the collection …
[Credits : Courtesy of the Soprintendenza alle Antiquità di Ostia, Italy]
Medical thought had reached this stage and had partially discarded the conceptions based upon magic and religion by 460 bc, the year that Hippocrates is said to have been born. Although he has been called the father of medicine, little is known of his life, and there may, in fact, have been several men of this name; or Hippocrates may have been the author of only some, or none, of the books that make up the Hippocratic Collection (Corpus Hippocraticum). Ancient writers held that Hippocrates taught and practiced medicine in Cos, the island of his birth, and in other parts of Greece, including Athens, and that he died at an advanced age.

Whether Hippocrates was one man or several, the works attributed to him mark the stage in Western medicine where disease was coming to be regarded as a natural rather than a supernatural phenomenon and doctors were encouraged to look for physical causes of illness. Some of the works, notably the Aphorismi (Aphorisms), were used as textbooks until the 19th century. The first and best-known aphorism is, “Life is Short, Art long, Occasion sudden and dangerous, Experience deceitful, and Judgment difficult” (often shortened to the Latin tag, “Ars longa, vita brevis”). This is followed by brief comments on diseases and symptoms, many of which remain valid.

The thermometer and the stethoscope were not then known; nor, indeed, did Hippocrates employ any aid to diagnosis beyond his own powers of observation and logical reasoning. He had an extraordinary ability to foretell the course of a malady, and he laid more stress upon the expected outcome, or prognosis, of a disease than upon its identification, or diagnosis. He had no patience with the idea that disease was a punishment sent by the gods. Writing of epilepsy, then called “the sacred disease,” he said, “It is not any more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause, and its supposed divine origin is due to man’s inexperience. Every disease,” he continued, “has its own nature, and arises from external causes.”

Hippocrates noted the effect of food, of occupation, and especially of climate in causing disease, and one of his most interesting books, entitled De aëre, aquis et locis (Air, Waters and Places), would today be classed as a treatise on human ecology. Pursuing this line of thought, Hippocrates stated that “our natures are the physicians of our diseases” and advocated that this tendency to natural cure should be fostered. He laid much stress on diet and the use of few drugs. He knew well how to describe illness clearly and concisely and recorded failures as well as successes; he viewed disease with the eye of the naturalist and studied the entire patient in his environment.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of Hippocrates is the charter of medical conduct embodied in the so-called Hippocratic oath, which has been adopted as a pattern by physicians throughout the ages:

I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Health, and All-heal, and all the gods and goddesses . . . to reckon him who taught me this Art equally dear to me as my parents, to share my substance with him, and relieve his necessities if required; to look upon his offspring in the same footing as my own brothers, and to teach them this art, if they shall wish to learn it, without fee or stipulation; and that by precept, lecture, and every other mode of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the Art to my own sons, and those of my teachers, and to disciples bound by a stipulation and oath according to the law of medicine, but to none others. I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion. . . . Into whatever houses I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the sick, and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption; and, further from the seduction of females or males, of freemen and slaves. Whatever, in connection with my professional practice or not, in connection with it, I see or hear, in the life of men, which ought not to be spoken of abroad, I will not divulge, as reckoning that all such should be kept secret.

Not strictly an oath, it was, rather, an ethical code or ideal, an appeal for right conduct. In one or other of its many versions, it has guided the practice of medicine throughout the world for more than 2,000 years.

The roots of Western medicine » Hellenistic and Roman medicine
Plato (left) and Aristotle, detail from School of Athens, fresco by …
[Credits : © Scala/Art Resource, New York]  In the following century the work of Aristotle, regarded as the first great biologist, was of inestimable value to medicine. A pupil of Plato at Athens and tutor to Alexander the Great, Aristotle studied the entire world of living things. He laid what can be identified as the foundations of comparative anatomy and embryology, and his views influenced scientific thinking for the next 2,000 years.

After the time of Aristotle, the centre of Greek culture shifted to Alexandria, where a famous medical school was established in about 300 bc. There, the two best medical teachers were Herophilus, whose treatise on anatomy may have been the first of its kind, and Erasistratus, regarded by some as the founder of physiology. Erasistratus noted the difference between sensory and motor nerves but thought that the nerves were hollow tubes containing fluid and that air entered the lungs and heart and was carried through the body in the arteries. Alexandria continued as a centre of medical teaching even after the Roman Empire had attained supremacy over the Greek world, and medical knowledge remained predominantly Greek.

Asclepiades of Bithynia (born 124 bc) differed from Hippocrates in that he denied the healing power of nature and insisted that disease should be treated safely, speedily, and agreeably. An opponent of the humoral theory, he drew upon the atomic theory of the 5th-century Greek philosopher Democritus in advocating a doctrine of strictum et laxum—the attribution of disease to the contracted or relaxed condition of the solid particles that he believed make up the body. To restore harmony among the particles and thus effect cures, Asclepiades used typically Greek remedies: massage, poultices, occasional tonics, fresh air, and corrective diet. He gave particular attention to mental disease, clearly distinguishing hallucinations from delusions. He released the insane from confinement in dark cellars and prescribed a regimen of occupational therapy, soothing music, soporifics (especially wine), and exercises to improve the attention and memory.

Asclepiades did much to win acceptance for Greek medicine in Rome. Aulus Cornelius Celsus, the Roman nobleman who wrote De medicina about ad 30, gave a classic account of Greek medicine of the time, including descriptions of elaborate surgical operations. His book, overlooked in his day, enjoyed a wide reputation during the Renaissance.

During the early centuries of the Christian Era, Greek doctors thronged to Rome. The most illustrious of them was Galen, who began practicing there in ad 161. He acknowledged his debt to Hippocrates and followed the Hippocratic method, accepting the doctrine of the humours. He laid stress on the value of anatomy, and he virtually founded experimental physiology. Galen recognized that the arteries contain blood and not merely air. He showed how the heart sets the blood in motion in an ebb and flow fashion, but he had no idea that the blood circulates. Dissection of the human body was at that time illegal, so that he was forced to base his knowledge upon the examination of animals, particularly apes. A voluminous writer who stated his views forcibly and with confidence, he remained for centuries the undisputed authority from whom no one dared to differ.

Another influential physician of the 2nd century ad was Soranus of Ephesus, who wrote authoritatively on childbirth, infant care, and women’s diseases. An opponent of abortion, he advocated numerous means of contraception. He also described how to assist a difficult delivery by turning the fetus in the uterus (podalic version), a life-saving technique that was subsequently lost sight of until it was revived in the 16th century.

Although the contribution of Rome to the practice of medicine was negligible compared with that of Greece, in matters of public health the Romans set the world a great example. The city of Rome had an unrivaled water supply. Gymnasiums and public baths were provided, and there was even domestic sanitation and adequate disposal of sewage. The army had its medical officers, public physicians were appointed to attend the poor, and hospitals were built; a Roman hospital excavated near Düsseldorf, Ger., was found to be strikingly modern in design.

 Christian and Muslim reservoirs of learning

After the fall of Rome, learning was no longer held in high esteem, experiment was discouraged, and originality became a dangerous asset. During the early Middle Ages medicine passed into the widely diverse hands of the Christian Church and Arab scholars.

Medicine and surgery before 1800 » Christian and Muslim reservoirs of learning

After the fall of Rome, learning was no longer held in high esteem, experiment was discouraged, and originality became a dangerous asset. During the early Middle Ages medicine passed into the widely diverse hands of the Christian Church and Arab scholars.
Medicine and surgery before 1800 » Christian and Muslim reservoirs of learning » Translators and saints
It is sometimes stated that the early Christian Church had an adverse effect upon medical progress. Disease was regarded as a punishment for sin, and such chastening demanded only prayer and repentance. Moreover, the human body was held sacred and dissection was forbidden. But the infinite care and nursing bestowed upon the sick under Christian auspices must outweigh any intolerance shown toward medicine in the early days.

Perhaps the greatest service rendered to medicine by the church was the preservation and transcription of the classical Greek medical manuscripts. These were translated into Latin in many medieval monasteries, and the Nestorian Christians (an Eastern church) established a school of translators to render the Greek texts into Arabic. This famous school, and also a great hospital, were located at Jundi Shāhpūr in southwest Persia, where the chief physician was Jurjīs ibn Bukhtīshūʿ, the first of a dynasty of translators and physicians that lasted for six generations. A later translator of great renown was Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, or Johannitus (born ad 809), whose translations were said to be worth their weight in gold.

About this time there appeared a number of saints whose names were associated with miraculous cures. Among the earliest of these were twin brothers, Cosmas and Damian, who suffered martyrdom (c. ad 303) and who became the patron saints of medicine. Other saints were invoked as powerful healers of certain diseases, such as St. Vitus for chorea (or St. Vitus’ dance) and St. Anthony for erysipelas (or St. Anthony’s fire). The cult of these saints was widespread in medieval times, and a later cult, that of St. Roch for plague, was widespread during the plague-ridden years of the 14th century.

Medicine and surgery before 1800 » Christian and Muslim reservoirs of learning » Arabian medicine
A second reservoir of medical learning during those times was the great Muslim empire, which extended from Persia to Spain. Although it is customary to speak of Arabian medicine in describing this period, not all of the physicians were Arabs or natives of Arabia. Nor, indeed, were they all Muslims: some were Jews, some Christians, and they were drawn from all parts of the empire. One of the earliest figures was Rhazes, a Persian born in the last half of the 9th century near modern Tehrān, who wrote a voluminous treatise on medicine, Kitāb al-hāḳī (“Comprehensive Book”), but whose most famous work, De variolis et morbillis (A Treatise on the Smallpox and Measles), distinguishes between these two diseases and gives a clear description of both.

Of later date was Avicenna (980–1037), also a Persian, who has been called the prince of physicians and whose tomb at Hamadan has become a place of pilgrimage. He could repeat the Qurʾān before he was 10 years old and at the age of 18 became court physician. His principal medical work, al-Qānūn fī aṭ-ṭibb (The Canon of Medicine), became a classic and was used at many medical schools—at Montpellier, Fr., as late as 1650—and reputedly is still used in the East.

The greatest contribution of Arabian medicine was in chemistry and in the knowledge and preparation of medicines. The chemists of that time were alchemists, and their pursuit was mainly a search for the philosopher’s stone, which supposedly would turn common metals into gold. In the course of their experiments, however, numerous substances were named and characterized, and some were found to have medicinal value. Many drugs now in use are of Arab origin, as are such processes as distillation and sublimation.

At that period, and indeed throughout most historical times, surgery was considered inferior to medicine, and surgeons were held in low regard. The renowned Spanish surgeon Abū al-Qāsim (Albucasis), however, did much to raise the status of surgery in Córdoba, an important centre of commerce and culture with a hospital and medical school equal to those of Cairo and Baghdad. A careful and conservative practitioner, he wrote the first illustrated surgical text, which held wide influence in Europe for centuries.

Another great doctor of Córdoba, born in the 12th century, just as the sun of Arabian culture was setting, was the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Banished from the city because he would not become a Muslim, he eventually went to Cairo, where the law was more lenient and where he acquired a reputation so high that he became physician to Saladin, the Saracen leader. (He was the original of El Hakim in Sir Walter Scott’s Talisman.) A few of his works, written in Hebrew, were eventually translated into Latin and printed.

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