Learn About the History of Medicine

All societies and cultures have practiced forms of medicine for thousands of years, from Chinese acupuncture to Western medicine, which is largely defined by diagnosis and medical examinations. The histories of ancient medicines are diverse, as they include wide-ranging, even contradictory, practices such as shamanism, faith healing and techniques arising from scientific methods.

The following are brief historical overviews of medical practices that arose from different ancient cultures, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Each of these medical practices includes specific techniques and treatments, as well as medical tools and concepts, which were used to treat the sick and injured.

Mesopotamia, which refers to the geographic region lying between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (rather than referring to a specific culture), had awell-rounded and sophisticated canon of medical texts that categorized symptoms and diagnoses according to the types of diseases. In texts that survived from the library of Asshurbanipal, the last renowned king of Assyria, medical information covers information about neurology, worms, skin lesions, fevers and more medical-related subjects. Today, Mesopotamian medicine is generally described as scientific and technical; however, herbal medicines (what some describe as “alternative” medicine) were also commonly used. Although Mesopotamian healers recognized that illnesses came from external intrusions, there were no perceptions of how illnesses and contagions occurred.

Traditional ancient Chinese medicine arose from Taoist and classical Chinese beliefs, and was based on causative effects and principles: as in Taoism, diagnoses and bodily functions reflected a natural order of the universe. The foundational text of Chinese medicine is referred to as the Huangdi nejining (the Yellow Emperor Inner classic), compiled sometime during the first century B.C. This book articulated and explored the important traditional practices grounding Ancient Chinese medicine, including acupuncture and herbal medicine.

Traditional medicine in India has its roots in the Atharvaveda, a sacred Hindi text and one of the four ancient Vedas. Amongst treatments of spiritual ailments, the text also contains herbal prescriptions for various conditions. Along with the Atharvaveda, the Ayuveda is also a significant sacred text that deals with medical conditions and treatments. The Ayuveda integrates traditional herbal medicines, as well as therapies and concepts dated from 400 B.C. onwards. The main concepts that shaped traditional Indian medicine arose from preventative medicine and the idea that diseases are not predetermined, but rather arise from life choices.

Ancient Greece
Medicine of Ancient Greece had an important impact on medicine as practiced today in the West. Hippocrates, whose nickname is the “father of medicine,” was an important physician during this period, and created the Hippocratic Oath for doctors, which is still used today. Galen was another important medical practitioner during this period, as he performed some of the first surgical operations in Ancient Greece, including brain and eye surgeries. The medical writings of Hippocrates, Galen and philosophers such as Socrates had a profound impact on medical practices in other cultures, including Islamic medicine. Some of Ancient Greece’s medical practices were shaped by older Egyptian medical techniques, as illnesses and treatments were categorized under “borrowed” subjects such as chronic, endemic and epidemic.

Ancient Rome
Although Ancient Rome’s medical culture and knowledge was significantly impacted by Ancient Greece, it also differed in significant ways. In Ancient Rome, and unlike in Ancient Greece, medical standards became a matter of public health. The government helped build structures like bathhouses and advanced sewages systems, as well as aqueducts in order to enact preventative measures to contagions. Unlike Ancient Greece, medicine in Ancient Rome was primarily focused on preventative measures, rather than treatments and cures. The practice of surgery became more advanced during this period, as surgical tools such as catheters and scalpels were used. The centralized government of Ancient Rome was also less religiously inclined than Ancient Greece, as it built military hospitals dealing with specific illnesses, rather than encouraging the sick to pray at religious temples.