15 April 2007

Medicine Yesterday and Today -- A Very Short Overview

All my life I heard the saying that there is nothing new under the sun. The older I get, and the more I learn about the past, the more I am convinced that this is so. In looking at the various civilizations medical practices we see many similarities from the ancient times to today.

Schistosomiasis is a disease caused by a water born parasite. It has been around for thousands of years in the river valleys of the Nile, the Tigress and Euphrates, the Indus Valley in India and the Yellow River Valley in China. Unfortunately it is still around today. It doesn't kill you outright. It just makes you wish you were dead. It causes a chronic irritation of the bowel. This leads to mental and physical deterioration throughout the victim's life.

The ancient Egyptians also had a lung disorder similar to the present day illness of coal miners, black lung. It was caused by sand blowing in off the desert and forced into the lungs.

Medical specialization is not new. According to Herodotus' observations ancient Egypt swarmed with highly specialized physicians dedicated to the care of eyes, head, teeth, stomach and obscure ailments. Today we call these specialists ophthalmology, orothinolarynogolist, dentist, gastroentology and internist.

They believed in magic, spells and prayers to the gods would cure ailments. They were not alone in these beliefs. The Greeks, Romans, Indians of India, Chinese followed these practices.

There is evidence from the mummies that ancient Egyptians suffered from many of the same disease as today. There is evidence of tuberculosis, polio, goiters, trachoma and cataracts.

In Ancient Greece the Pythagoreans had a similar concept of the universe as the Chinese Yin/Yang philosophy.

They had a theory of bloodletting to rid the body of bad humors. This is similar to the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture. It does not let blood, but does let out bad humors. For the wealthy ancient Greeks the pursuit of good health meant more than the absence of disease. It was a time consuming regimen in which the person had complete control over food, drink, exercise and rest. In Rome, Celsus, had the same theory for good health, but added people should avoid self-indulgent behavior. Today the wealthy have the time and money for a personal trainer to do all of these things for them.

At the height of the Greek civilization Erasistratus believed disease was caused by excess of blood from undigested foods which tended to become putrid in the stomach. This is similar to the ancient Egyptian belief that disease was caused by intestinal putrification from food, and person’s health could only be maintained by enemas and purging. Sound familiar?

The Romans like the Egyptians had deities for all major organs and functions of the body. Like the Indians at Mohenjodaro who had bathrooms the Romans had a similar system for good hygiene, sanitation, clean water and sewage disposal.

The Prophet Mohamed taught that stress caused disease, "Excessive worry makes for physical illness in a person." This is true today in our hurry up and wait world. The prevalence of heart disease and high blood pressure are evidence that stress still has humanity in its grip.

One of the first recorded plagues happened in 79 AD. The Plague of Justinian killed about ten thousand people. In 125 AD some eight hundred thousand died in North Africa. This plague then spread to Italy. Many of the towns and cities were wiped out. It greatly weakened many parts of the Roman Empire. In 165 AD was the plague of Galen and in 430 AD was the plague of Athens. As bad as these were they were just the beginning of the devastation that would destroy much of European society in the Middle Ages.

This is just a few of the similarities within the ancient world and our own civilization. As I think about the advances of mankind I am reminded that ancient man lived in caves, and today the most expensive home a person can have is made of stone. The more things change the more they stay the same.

1 comment:

Liz Clare said...

There's an excellent book on medicine on the American frontier I've used, called "Bleed, Blister, and Purge, by Volney Steele.

It's amazing to think about how recently some of the practices described were simply the conventional wisdom.

Steele, an M.D., reveals his unfamiliar story with what he calls a "mixture of awe and distress." That about sums it up. Makes you wonder what practices of today will seem barbaric to the people of the future.

co-author of "To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis & Clark"
Foreword Book of the Year Finalist