Thursday, May 24, 2012

History of Medicine: Introduction

[Part 1 of a series on the History of Medicine]

Hand X-Ray
X-ray of a hand

Human beings have always had beliefs or explanations about birth, death and sickness. People have thought that sickness could have been caused by witches, demons, the stars and the gods. While these beliefs still exist today in some parts of the world, scientific medicine is what most people depend on when they get sick.

The ancient Egyptians had a system of medicine that was very advanced for its time. The Egyptians and Babylonians both introduced the concepts of diagnosis, prognosis, and medical examination. The Hippocratic Oath, still taken by doctors today, was written in Greece in the 5th century BC. In the Middle Ages, surgical practices were improved and then systematized in Rogerius's The Practice of Surgery. During the Renaissance, understanding of anatomy improved, and the invention of the microscope would later lead to the germ theory of disease. These advancements, along with developments in chemistry, genetics, and lab technology (such as the x-ray) led to modern medicine.

IMG_3986 crop
Examining a patient's ear through operating microscope.

Hippocratic Oath (Modern version by Dr. Louis Lasagna 1964)
  • I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
  • I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
  • I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of over-treatment and therapeutic nihilism.
  • I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.
  • I will not be ashamed to say "I know not", nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.
  • I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given to me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
  • I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
  • I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
  • I will remember that I remain a member of society with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
  • If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, be respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

Word list:
  • diagnosis = a statement about what disease someone has, based on examining them
  • prognosis = a doctor’s opinion about the way in which a disease or illness is likely to develop
  • nihilism = the belief that nothing in life has any importance or value
  • infirm = people who are weak because of old age or illness

Reference: Wikipedia: History of Medicine

Photo Credits:
Hand x-ray by Trace Meek on
Operating microscope by Mike Blyth on