Ancient Medicine

If you were a time traveller, it’s a fairly good bet that you would want to avoid any of the old timey doctors. What with the leeches and the drilling into your head. Now there are lots of magazines, tabloids, actual scientific journals, and schools of thought that like to focus on all the wonderful things we’ve forgotten from antiquity -especially when it comes to our health.

For the most part, I think people dismiss such things. Usually with a comment about “how could they know about being healthy when they had a life expectancy of 30-something?” Well, there are a couple of things to remember about life expectancies.

Yes, there were a lot of wars and battles, but we have those now too. They don’t skew the average that much. Perhaps you can argue that in third world countries the battles there do affect the average, but that’s not what I want to focus on. A major reason the life expectancy is so low in years gone by is because of infant mortality rates. It’s just a fact that they didn’t understand germs, contamination, and similar risks like we do. As a result, sometimes it seems like it was just a toss up on whether a child would reach the age of 5 or not. Many didn’t. Which if you’ve ever had one bad grade in an otherwise good semester you’ll know how much that one low number affects the average.

As for all the “amazing things we forgot”… well, a lot of them are not worth thinking twice about. In some cases the “wisdom of the ancients” was more a matter of necessity than them realizing the health benefits. For example, the Mediterranean diet is fairly popular for being super healthy -but it was developed because that’s just what foods they had available to them. There was no controlled study done in Ancient Athens to determine whether fish or chicken was healthier, or any other food issue we debate today.

The ancients did understand that there were physical problems that required specialists to treat. Despite what people might think (or expect), they weren’t all a bunch of superstitious ninnies… neither was Hippocrates, Socrates, Aristotle, and all the others men of pure logic who had no time for the silly notion of “the gods”. For ancient peoples in almost any civilization, they had a peculiar relationship with their deities. They recognized them as the driving forces of the world around them -and natural disasters were seen as proof of those powers- but they didn’t think the gods had their whole lives planned out so there was nothing to be done about anything. Similarly, while Hippocrates and all the famous philosophers did draw away from some of the superstitious rituals, none of them denied the gods existence or power. Socrates is most offended by being accused of being an atheist during his trial, and Hippocrates begins his oath by calling on Apollo, Asclepius, and some of Asclepius’ daughters. To them, the gods were very real, if not as involved in the day-to-day as some of their fellow citizens thought.

In the ancient world the Egyptians were considered the “Father(s) of Medicine” with people from Homer to Herodotus proclaiming their superior knowledge and skills. They specialized to an extreme extent there, with each doctor focusing on and treating an individual malady.

The Greeks ported many of the Egyptian deities and customs, which combined with their native healing cult centered around the god Asclepius. Hippocrates was the last in a long line of physician-priests of that god, and he took the faith healings of the Greeks and the specialized focus of the Egyptians to create a scientific method and practice of medicine. For him, the case study was the paramount method of determining effectiveness. (They clearly didn’t know about placebo effects back then, but then that might be why some of their methods were so surprisingly effective).

From there the study of medicine really took off… But here’s a quick (very quick) overview of how medicine progressed through the ages.

Prehistoric: Trepanning (drilling a hole in the skull to release ‘demons’), Shamans, and nature-based superstitions make up the primary health care (as far as we can tell…it is called “prehistoric” for a reason)


  • The first known surgery was performed roughly 2750 BCE in Egypt.
  • Sometime between 2613 and 2494, Peseshet is the first known female physician and practiced in Egypt.
  • The oldest surviving medical text, from around 1800 BCE, focused on gynaecological problems (women’s health & fertility)
  • The Edwin Smith Papyrus was written around 1600 BCE (in Egypt) and is believed to be a compilation of many earlier medical texts –none of which have survived.
  • 1069-1046 BCE the most extensive medical text, the Babylonian Diagnostic Handbook, was written.
  • Roughly 800 BCE Homer makes several allusions to an already well established healing cult of Asclepius, including usage of anesthesia.
  • The first medical school in Greece is opened in 700 BCE in Cnidus.
  • 700-200 BCE the first Indian medical text (in the form of a sacred Hindu text) is written, focusing on the concepts of demons, magic, and healing herbs.
  • Hippocrates of Kos lived around 460-370 BCE and is commonly considered the “father of modern medicine”.
  • Marble tablets dated to 350 BCE recount successful surgical cures completed at the Asclepian temple in Epidaurus, which were completed with the patient on opium.
  • Sometime between 300 and 250 BCE Alexandria produced many great physicians (some of whose names have been lost) resulting in such medical advancements as:
    • Hernia operations, Ophthalmic surgery, Plastic surgery, Tracheotomy, the difference between veins and arteries, the connection of the nervous system, and an early theory of metabolism.
    • Galen lived around 130-200 CE and his medical texts were considered as the authority on medicine well into the Middle Ages. He performed many surgeries, including brain and eye surgeries which wouldn’t even be attempted again until modern times.

Middle Ages & Renaissance

  • 400 CE medical institutions began to break down and/or disappear and medical services transitioned to monasteries. Religious beliefs held that the suffering of the sick was one of the ways that would lead people (especially poor people) to salvation.
  • Around 800 CE medical schools began being opened, influenced by the ancient medical texts (that were often preserved in various monasteries). Graduates were called “magister” which was Latin for doctor, and physicians were first called “doctor” at Salemo.
  • In the 12th century (1101-1200 CE) universities were founded in Italy, France, and England. Those soon became schools of medicine.
  • Paracelsus lived 1493-1541 and shook the foundations of medical assumptions by rejecting outright many of the Church’s theories on health and sickness. He was very erratic and used alchemy and magic quite liberally in his work.
  • Modern Neurology began to develop in the 16th century, started by Vesalius (who corrected over 200 of Galen’s misconceptions). Unfortunately this was a time of increased understanding and awareness, but not of increased health care.
  • In 1556 Julius Caesar Aranzi became Professor of Anatomy and Surgery and the University of Bologna and established anatomy as a major branch of medicine.
  • In 1595 the University of Padua drew artists and scientists alike to study the human body during public dissections.
  • Until the 19th century the theory of the Humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) was the dominant theory.

Age of Enlightenment

  • During the 18th century the medical field was filled with self-taught barber-surgeons, midwives, apothecaries, drug peddlers, and the ever-present charlatans.
  • The first great British hospital opened in 1721 in London, and was expanded in 1821 with an additional hundred beds.
  • The application of the scientific method to medical research did not occur until the 20th century.

One thought on “Ancient Medicine

  1. Pingback: Women in Antiquity | Scribbles in the Margins

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