medicine through the ages

Within the last 175 years or so medicine has become dominated by scientific principles. Prior to this, healing was mainly a matter of tradition and magic. Many of these prescientific attitudes have persisted to this day.


The earliest evidence of medical practice is seen in Neolithic skulls in which holes have been bored, presumably to let evil spirits out, a practice called trepanning. Treatment in primitive cultures was either empirical or magical. Empirical treatment included bloodletting, dieting, primitive surgery, and the administration of numerous potions, lotions, and herbal remedies (some used in modern medicines). For serious ailments, magical treatment, including propitiation of the gods, special rituals, or the provision of charms, was performed by the medicine man or witch doctor, who was usually both doctor and priest. Exorcism, the casting out of devils, and faith healing are still practiced in modern societies. Acupuncture and osteopathy, both being ancient and empirical, are also practiced today.


The growth of scientific medicine began with the Greek philosophy of nature. The great Greek physician Hippocrates, with whose name is associated the Hippocratic oath which codifies the physicians ideals of humanity and service, has justly been called the father of medicine. Galen of Pergamun, the encyclopedist of classical medicine, clearly distinguished anatomy from physiology. Medieval medicine was basically a corrupted Galenism. The 16th century saw the dawn of modern medicine. Men such as Fabricius, Vesalius, and William Harvey revived the critical, observational approach to medical research. Perhaps the most far-reaching advances since then have been in preventive medicine, anesthesia, and drug therapy. Preventive medicine was attempted in medieval times when ships arriving in Europe during the Black Death were "quarantined" for 40 days. More recent major milestones have been Edward Jenner's work on vaccination and the "germ theory of disease" proposed by Louis Pasteur and developed by Robert Koch. Anesthesia and asepsis (see Lister, Joseph) made possible great advances in surgery. Crawford Long and James Simpson were both pioneers of their use. Drug therapy originated with herbal remedies, but perhaps the two most important discoveries in this field both came in the twentieth century: that of insulin by Frederick Banting and Charles Best, and that of penicillin by Alexander Fleming.