How did we treat illness before we knew what germs were? How did we discover bacteria which cause disease? The history of medicine is a super interesting topic and we are going to learn all about it!
What time periods of the history of medicine are we learning about?
- Prehistoric medicine
- 2000BC – Egyptian Medicine
- 1500 – 300BC – Greek Medicine
- 400BC – Hippocrates
- 400BC – 500AD – Roman Medicine
- 1347-1348 – Black Death
- 16th Century Medicine
- 17th Century Medicine
- 18th Century Medicine
- 19th Century Medicine
- 20th Century Medicine
What is pre-history?
Prehistory is a time before written records, we learn about pre-history by studying things which aren’t written. These things may include cave paintings, human remains, or stone tools left behind by prehistoric people. Prehistoric medicine was largely based on the belief in evil spirits but prehistoric people did have some practical tools which they used to treat the sick and injured.
What is Trepanation?
Trepanation was used by prehistoric humans to relieve a headache by cutting a hole in the skulls with a sharp rock, ouch! Prehistoric humans believed this practice would release evil spirits from the body but it probably did more harm than good. Miraculously some people survived this grusome proceedure, we know as skeletons left behind have holes which are partially healed from trapanning. HIghly trained surgeons today only open the skull if there is too much pressure in the skull, they still call this practice trepanation.
Could Prehistoric people treat broken bones?
Archeologists discovered that prehistoric people could treat fractures and broken bones by looking at their skeletons. Prehistoric people healed bones in the same we do know, by placing them in a splint to keep the bone imobile while it healed. Lots of prehistoric skeletons have fully healed breaks showing the success they had at healing fractures.
2000BC – Egyptian Medicine
The Egyptians developed papyrus, an early form of paper, and kept physical records which historians can study. The Egyptian methods of treating the body developed from their ideas around irrigation which came from their use of the Rive Nile. They believed the body was made up of channels like the errigation channels coming from the Nile. They believed that these channels in the body becoming blocked was the cause of illness.
Egyptians used a lot of herbal remedies to treat the body, one of their remedies was to eat honey for a sore throat. This is a cure still used today as honey does have antibacterial properties and can soothe a sore throat.
1500 – 300BC – Greek Medicine
The Greeks based their medicine on religion, praying to the god of health Asclepius for health or even visiting a temple to Asclepius called an Asclepion.
What is a Greek Asclepion?
When the Greeks got sick they would often be sent to an Asklepion to get better. Asklepions were usually out in the countryside and were made up of several buildings where people would do several things to make them feel better.
While at the Asklepion people would take baths with sacred oils and salts. They would also work out as it was though exercise would help heal your body. They would also buy things to give to the god Asclepius as an offering. If you had a sore foot you might give Asclepius a wooden foot to ask him to heal you.
One of the stranger things the Greeks did at the Asklepion was sleeping under the stars while physicians let snakes lick your wounds in an area called the Abaton. The Greeks thought that Asclepius would heal you through the snakes. Asclepius is often portrayed as carrying a staff wrapped in snakes, this symbol is also seen as hospitals today.
People who visited the Asclepion did get better usually but this was likely due to the relaxation, execise, and bathing they had when there. In the picture below you can see the ruins of an Abaton at a Greek Asclepion.
400BC – Hippocrates
Hippocrates is known as the father of medicine for his contributions to medical thought and the profession of being a doctor. So what did Hippocrates bring to medicine?
The Four Humours was a theory on how illness came to the body which theorised that the body was made up of four substances, blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. This theory meant that to be healthy the body had to be completely balanced. This encouraged people to have things in moderation and to ensure a balanced diet even if it was incorrect. The Four Humours theory was adopted and was popular for over 2000 years.
The Hippocratic Oath
Hippocrates did a lot of work around how doctors should act and how they should treat their patients. He wrote an oath which he believed all doctors should swear to promise to act in a way that was best for their patients. Doctors today swear a similar oath which is still called the Hippocratic Oath.
400BC – 500AD – Roman Medicine
The Roman empire was known for their architectural accomplishments and their public health standards, which were very high. The health of Roman people improved as they had clean streets and clean water. The Romans has aqueducts, sewers, drains and public baths which would keep the people and the streets clean. Some Roman cities even had people in charge of ensuring the quality of the water provided to the people. A lot less disease spread through Roman cities as they were so clean.
Galen is one of the most influential figures in all of medical history for several reasons including his further development of four humours theory, his anatomical work, and his treatment of patients.
Galen believed in learning about anatomy through dissection and he made many key discoveries which were believed until the 16th Century even though he made many mistakes.
Correctly, Galen discovered that the brain controlled the body, not the heart which was previously believed. However, he also believed that humans had two jaw bones as he had only studied the jawbones of animals which do have two jawbones. Humans only have one. However, doctors had so much faith in Galen that no one questioned his findings for over 1000 years.
Galen’s Treatment of Patients
Galen developed a system of treatment for his patients which focused on the observation of the patient and getting to know the problem fully. It involved Observation, when Galen would watch for and discuss the symptoms of his patient. Diagnosis, where he would offer an idea of what was wrong with the patient, such as a unbalance of the humours. Prognosis, which is when he would tell the patient how their road to recovery would be like and how long he thought they would be ill. And Treatment, where he would prescribe a cure for their ailment.
The importance of placing patients under observation is still understood by doctors who use it to diagnose patients today.
1347-1348 – Black Death
The Black Death was a plague in two forms, bubonic and pnumonic which reduced the population of Europe by half. This time in history led to the creation of many weird cures such as putting frogs under your arms or smelling toilets.
The closest to being right about how illness was caused people got during the Black Death was a belief that ‘bad air’ caused disease. People carried herbs and flowers around to prevent breathing in the plague ‘Miasma’ – a term meaning bad air.
16th Century Medicine
1540’s – Andreas Vesalius
Andreas Vesalius changed the established thought about anatomy through his extensive work in dissections. He created detailed diagrams and found out what of Galen’s work was accurate and where he made mistakes. Andreas Vesalius created the most complete anatomical study of the human body in history. His anatomy sketches are remembered for their dramatic poses and the scenery around them.
1570 – Ambroise Pare
Pare is best known for creating ligatures which were used to sew up wounds meaning they could be sewn up after surgery. His work prevented patients getting infections in their wounds or having to have wounds cauterised which was very sore.
While working as a military doctor he developed an ointment to treat gunshot wounds which helped them heal quicker. It was a mixture of egg whites, turpentine, and rose oil. Before Pare’s work gunshot wounds were treated with very hot oil which was very paintful. Pare’s ointment sped up healing and prevented infections saving lives.
17th Century Medicine
1620’s – William Harvey
William Harvey was the man who discovered that blood pumped around the body and was always in the body. He discovered that blood was pumped away from the heart by arteries and into the heart by veins. His experiments on the veins helped us understand how blood works to keep us alive.
Want to learn more about the circulatory system? Check out this video!
18th Century Medicine
1796 – Edward Jenner – Vaccines
Edward Jenner is best-known for curing Smallpox, but how did he find the cure?
Jenner noticed that maids that milked cows ended up getting cow pox instead of small pox. He theorised that you could only get one form of the pox and so if people were given cow pox it would be a good way to prevent them getting the much deadlier small pox.
He created the world’s first vaccine to small pox by exposing people to the virus cow pox which was a lot less damaging and less deadly. This was done through a proccess called variolation where scabs from cow pox victims were put into a cut to spread the disease to healthy people. People who got cow pox never got small pox and this saved many lives.
What are infectious disease? Find out more below!
19th Century Medicine
1854 – Crimean War
The Crimean War had an impact on medicine as two historic nurses did amazing work during the time. Both Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole worked hard to help people during the Crimean War.
In 1854 Florence left Britain and went to Turkey to help soldiers fighting in the Crimean War. She brought38 volunteers who were all well trained nurses who could help. When she arrived in Turkey she noticed that a lot of people were only getting worse inside the hospitals. She observed that this was caused by the poor hygiene and conditions in the hospital. There were even rats running around spreading disease. She cleaned up the hospitals, encouraged the nurses to wash their hands, and improved ventilation. These measures helped all the patients staying in the hospitals and the nurses and doctors working there.
During her time as a nurse in the Crimea War Florence Nightingale would check on her patients during the night and as they arrived. Newly wounded or ill soldiers started to call her the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ as they would see her small lamp light coming through the dark as she came to check on them. Florence checked on soldiers as they arrived to make sure that they had everything they needed to be comfortable, to make sure their clothes were cleaned, and that their injuries were all treated well.
Mary Seacole was a nurse from Jamaica and had learned how to take care of people from her mother. Mary Seacole offered her services to Florence Nightingale as a nurse but was turned down but did that stop her? Of course not.
Mary Seacole paid her own way to Crimea and set up a hotel for British soldiers where they could recieve medical treatment, hot food, and equipment. Mary Seacole even went a step further than other nurses in her mission to help wounded soldiers. She rode on horseback across the battlefield to bring aid to soldiers who needed it and she helped soldiers on both sides of the conflict. A true hero.
1861 – Germ Theory by Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur was working on a way to keep wine fresh and during his experiments he proved that germs in the air were the cause of illness. This was a big step in preventing and curing illness as germ theory would eventually take over from Four Humours Theory which had been around for over 2000 years.
1867 – Aseptic Surgery – Joseph Lister
Joseph Lister visited a friend who worked in the sewers and compared the smell of the sewer to that of the room where he performed surgery. Ew! Sewers at the time were cleaned with acid used to kill off germs. Lister believed he could use carbolic acid to clean his surgery room and surgical tools meaning that there was less chance of infection as the germs would be gone. He used a carbolic acid spray to cover his surgery room in a mist of acid to kill germs. This was the first time tools and rooms for surgery were cleaned to make them aseptic before performing surgery. A huge moment in the history of medicine.
1881 – Anthrax Bacteria discovered by Robert Koch
Robert Koch discovered the Anthrax bacteria and was able to view bacteria through a microscope for the first time. His work eventually discovered the bacteria resposible for many illnesses such as Typhus, Tuberculosis, Cholera, Tetanus, Pneumonia, Meningitis, Plague, and Dysentery. This was the first time in the history of medicine we were able to tell which bacteria caused which illness. This is how we develop vaccines today by identifying and using bacteria that causes illness.
20th Century Medicine
1911- NHS started
The National Health Service (NHS) was started in Britain during this year, this was the first time any Western nation had ever offered free healthcare to its entire population, the entire healthcare service was not fully nationalised until 1948 but this was the start of British healthcare being free for its citizens.
1928 – Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin’s uses
Penicillin is an important drug which fights infections but how did we find out that it kills bacteria? Alexander Fleming was the scientist who found out but not on purpose. Fleming had placed a petri dish with bacteria growing on it near a window. The petri dish was contaminated with penicillin and he noticed that the bacteria where the penicillin had tounched died. He wrote many papers about the uses for penicillin. Two Scientists called Florey and Chain were able to create a drug from penicillin between 1937 and 1945 with soldiers in World War 2 having it as an essential in their medical pack. The creation of penicillin as an anti-infection drug has saved millions of lives.
1953 – DNA structure discovered Conclusion
DNA makes us who we are and forms every characteristic and trait we have from our eye colour to our height. DNA stands for Deoxyribonucleic acid, and its shape is called a double helix. We didn’t know this until the DNA was xrayed. This important discovery in the history of medicine was made by Dr. Rosalind Franklin. Her discovery unlocked secrets to how all living things are formed.
The history of medicine is a long tale of trial and error, discovery and death, and is packed full of individuals who made a huge impact through their research and sometimes helped with a happy accident or two. What do we still have to learn about the human body? As Vesalius proved when showing the mistakes of Galen, we can always learn more!