The Changing Concepts of Medicine (from sorcery to science) by Dr Rod Amos — 6 January 2014


Rod out­lined six stages of med­ical mis­un­der­stand­ing. These were:

  1. The age of mys­ti­cism.
  2. The age of reason – mis­placed.
  3. The dark ages.
  4. The Renaissance.
  5. Modern know­ledge.
  6. Science.

The earli­est ref­er­ences can be found in Samaria when the snake was the symbol of a priest with heal­ing power.  Later in Egyptian times only a Pharaoh could wear a snake symbol on his head to show his power.  Gilgamesh was the first record we have of some­body writ­ing down med­ical con­cepts.  Snake fat was widely used for pro­tec­tion from ill­nesses brought by the gods.

In the next age, Hippocrates around 500BC wrote about medi­cine and described the few oper­a­tions that were attemp­ted includ­ing drilling a hole in the skull to let out demons.  The dictum that was fol­lowed is known as “Primum non nocere” and means “first do no harm”.  At this time heal­ing was attemp­ted by inter­pret­ing a patient’s dreams and in Rome were Aesculapius temples where non-poisonous snakes roamed freely and people’s snake dreams were inter­preted.  Hippocrates rejec­ted the con­nec­tion between ill­ness and the gods and recom­men­ded care­ful listen­ing and obser­va­tion.  He believed there were chan­nels through the body and Yellow Bile; Phlegm; Black Bile and Blood must be kept in bal­ance and not blocked.

Around 100BC Theriac listed 54 snake derived ingredi­ents for use in heal­ing and these recipes were still in use in eight­eenth cen­tury.  Quacks were often snake hand­lers and could be found up to recent times.

In 130AD in Rome, Galen wrote much about medi­cine and this improved know­ledge became the unchal­lenged truth and required learn­ing of doc­tors right into the eight­eenth cen­tury.  During the Dark Ages this know­ledge was pre­served only in the Eastern Roman Empire and by the Arabs.  In the West, it became blas­phem­ous to heal as ill­ness was pun­ish­ment from God and only heal­ing by monks was tol­er­ated.

In the elev­enth cen­tury the first med­ical school was cre­ated.  The works of Galen were read out and doc­tors had to learn the whole work by heart.  It was only when Paracelsus (1493–1541) pro­duced a book cor­rect­ing Galen’s ana­tomy that there was any advance in med­ical know­ledge for over a thou­sand years.

Following the Renaissance, the belief in “humours” per­sisted but doc­tors began to at least touch their patients.  Bloodletting and boil pier­cing were common treat­ments.

It was only when the exist­ence of bac­teria was dis­covered that med­ical sci­ence as we think of it today began.  With improved hygiene the curing rates of patients under doc­tors rose dra­mat­ic­ally, espe­cially in hos­pit­als.