by Wikipedia
published on 05 August 2011
Hygieia ()

Medicine is the science and art of healing. It encompasses a variety of health care practices evolved to maintain and restore health by the prevention and treatment of illness. All human societies have medical beliefs that provide explanations for birth, death, and disease. Throughout history, illness has been attributed to witchcraft, demons, adverse astral influence, or the will of the gods.

Early records on medicine have been discovered from ancient Egyptian medicine, Babylonian medicine, Ayurvedic medicine (in the Indian subcontinent), classical Chinese medicine (predecessor to the modern traditional Chinese Medicine), and ancient Greek medicine and Roman medicine.

Prehistory of Medicine

Prehistoric medicine incorporated plants (herbalism), animal parts and minerals. In many cases these materials were used ritually as magical substances by priests, shamans, or medicine men. It is clear that prehistoric societies believed in both natural and supernatural means of variably causing and treating disease. Plant materials (herbs and substances derived from natural sources), were among the treatments for diseases in prehistoric cultures.

Egyptian Medicine

The Egyptian Imhotep (2667 - 2648 BCE) is the first physician in history known by name. The earliest known surgery in Egypt was performed in Egypt around 2750 BCE. The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus treats women's complaints, including problems with conception. Thirty four cases detailing diagnosis and treatment survive, some of them fragmentarily. Dating to 1800 BCE, it is the oldest surviving medical text of any kind. Medical institutions, referred to as Houses of Life are known to have been established in ancient Egypt as early as the 1st Dynasty.

Herodotus described the Egyptians as "the healthiest of all men, next to the Libyans", due to the dry climate and the notable public health system that they possessed. According to him, "[t]he practice of medicine is so specialized among them that each physician is a healer of one disease and no more." Although Egyptian medicine, to a good extent, dealt with the supernatural, it eventually developed a practical use in the fields of anatomy, public health, and clinical diagnostics. 

The oldest Babylonian texts on medicine date back to the Old Babylonian period in the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE. 

Mesopotamian Medicine

The oldest Babylonian texts on medicine date back to the Old Babylonian period in the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE. The most extensive Babylonian medical text, however, is the Diagnostic Handbook written by the physician Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa, during the reign of the Babylonian king Adad-apla-iddina (1069- 1046 BCE). Along with contemporary ancient Egyptian medicine, the Babylonians introduced the concepts of diagnosis, prognosis, physical examination, and medical prescriptions.

In addition, the Diagnostic Handbook introduced the methods of therapy and etiology and the use of empiricism, logic and rationality in diagnosis, prognosis and therapy. The text contains a list of medical symptoms and often detailed empirical observations along with logical rules used in combining observed symptoms on the body of a patient with its diagnosis and prognosis.

Indian Medicine

The Atharvaveda, a sacred text of Hinduism dating from the Early Iron Age, is the first Indian text dealing with medicine, like the medicine of the Ancient Near East based on concepts of the exorcism of demons and magic. The Atharvaveda also contain prescriptions of herbs for various ailments. The use of herbs to treat ailments would later form a large part of Ayurveda.

In the first millennium BCE, there emerges in post-Vedic India the traditional medicine system known as Ayurveda, meaning the "complete knowledge for long life". Its two most famous texts belong to the schools of Charaka, born c. 600 BCE, and Sushruta, born 600 BCE. The earliest foundations of Ayurveda were built on a synthesis of traditional herbal practices together with a massive addition of theoretical conceptualizations, new nosologies and new therapies dating from about 400 BCE onwards, and coming out of the communities of thinkers who included the Buddha and others.

The Ayurvedic classics mention eight branches of medicine: kāyācikitsā (internal medicine), śalyacikitsā (surgery including anatomy), śālākyacikitsā (eye, ear, nose, and throat diseases), kaumārabhṛtya (pediatrics), bhūtavidyā (spirit medicine), and agada tantra (toxicology), rasāyana (science of rejuvenation), and vājīkaraṇa (aphrodisiacs, mainly for men). Apart from learning these, the student of Āyurveda was expected to know ten arts that were indispensable in the preparation and application of his medicines: distillation, operative skills, cooking, horticulture, metallurgy, sugar manufacture, pharmacy, analysis and separation of minerals, compounding of metals, and preparation of alkalis.

Skull with Trephination

Greek & Roman Medicine

The first known Greek medical school opened in Cnidus in 700 BCE. Alcmaeon, author of the first anatomical work, worked at this school, and it was here that the practice of observing patients was established. As was the case elsewhere, the ancient Greeks developed a humoral medicine system where treatment sought to restore the balance of humours within the body.

Temples dedicated to the healer- god Asclepius, known as Asclepieia (Greek: Ἀσκληπιεῖα, sing. Ἀσκληπιεῖον, 'Asclepieion), functioned as centers of medical advice, prognosis, and healing. At these shrines, patients would enter a dream- like state of induced sleep known as enkoimesis (Greek: ενκοίμησις) not unlike anesthesia, in which they either received guidance from the deity in a dream or were cured by surgery.

The Greek physician Hippocrates of Cos (c. 460 - c. 370 BCE), the "father of medicine", laid the foundation for a rational approach to medicine. Hippocrates was perhaps the first to categorize illnesses as acute, chronic, endemic and epidemic, and use terms such as, "exacerbation, relapse, resolution, crisis, paroxysm, peak, and convalescence".

The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of around sixtty early medical works from ancient Greece strongly associated with Hippocrates and his students. The most famous works in the Corpus is the Hippocratic Oath which is still relevant and in use today by physicians. Hippocrates is not considered to be the exclusive author of the Oath but rather the document belongs to a larger collection of treatises on Greek medicine compiled into a Corpus Hippocatium which bears his name. 

Herophilus of Chalcedon (325 - 280 BCE), working at the medical school of Alexandria placed intelligence in the brain, and connected the nervous system to motion and sensation. Herophilus also distinguished between veins and arteries, noting that the latter pulse while the former do not. He and his contemporary, Erasistratus of Chios, researched the role of veins and nerves, mapping their courses across the body. Erasistratus connected the increased complexity of the surface of the human brain compared to other animals to its superior intelligence.

The Greek physician Galen (129 - 217 CE) was also one of the greatest surgeons of the ancient world and performed many audacious operations, including brain and eye surgeries.

The Romans invented numerous surgical instruments, including the first instruments unique to women, as well as the surgical uses of forceps, scalpels, cautery, cross-bladed scissors, the surgical needle, the sound, and speculas. Romans also performed cataract surgery.


Legacy of Ancient Medicine

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the onset of the Early Middle Ages, the Greek tradition of medicine went into decline in Western Europe, although it continued uninterrupted in the Eastern Roman Empire.

After 750 CE, the Muslim Arab world had the ancient works on medicine translated into Arabic, and Islamic physicians engaged in some significant medical research. Notable Islamic medical pioneers include the polymath, Avicenna, who, along with Imhotep and Hippocrates, has also been called the "father of medicine". He wrote The Canon of Medicine, considered one of the most famous books in the history of medicine.

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Visual Timeline
  • 6500 BCE
    First evidence of the surgical procedure of trephination found in France.
  • 5000 BCE
    Evidence of the surgical procedure of trephination found in China.
  • 2667 BCE - 2648 BCE
    Imhotep in Egypt writes medical texts describing diagnosis and treatment of 100 diseases and 48 injuries.
  • c. 1800 BCE
    The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus deals with women's health and contraception.
  • c. 1500 BCE
    Saffron used as medicine on the Aegaean island of Thera.
  • c. 1050 BCE
    Babylonian "Diagnostic Handbook" is written by the physician Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa.
  • 950 BCE - 1400 BCE
    Evidence of the surgical procedure of trephination found in Mesoamerica.
  • 800 BCE - 700 BCE
    Homer's Iliad is composed with mention of medical treatment in Greek warfare.
  • 700 BCE
    First Greek medical school opens in Cnidus.
  • c. 600 BCE
    Charaka and Sushruta found two schools of Ayurveda.
  • c. 460 BCE - c. 370 BCE
    Traditional dates for the life of Hippocrates in Greece, the "father of medicine" and inventor of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians.
  • 431 BCE
    The temple to Apollo Medicus is built in Rome.
  • 325 BCE - 280 BCE
    Life of Herophilus of Chalcedon, who studied the brain and the nervous system, attributing intelligence to the brain.
  • 292 BCE
    The Romans adopt the Greek god of medicine Asclepius by stealing his sacred snake from Epidaurus and setting up a temple on the Tiber Island.
  • 219 BCE
    The physician Archagathus of Sparta arrives in Rome.
  • c. 1 CE - 50 CE
    Life of Roman physician Scribonius Largus.
  • 43 CE
    The physician Scribonius Largus travels to Britain with the entourage of Claudius.
  • c. 60 CE - 130 CE
    Life of the physician Soranus of Ephesos.
  • 129 CE - c. 216 CE
    Life of the physician Galen of Pergamon.
  • c. 830 CE - c. 870 CE
    Hunayn ibn Ishaq translates Galen's works into Arabic.
  • c. 1030 CE
    Avicenna writes the Book of Healing and the Canon of Medicine, based on earlier works.
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