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.