A doctor is administering ancient medicine to a patient.

Ancient Medicine: The Ancient World Influencing the Modern World

Ancient medicine led to breakthroughs in modern medicine. Due to the discoveries of the past, the present medical professionals can heal and treat the sick and wounded to the best of their ability.

Unlike today, the gods played a large part in the healing process in ancient times. Offerings, reading spells and wearing amulets were common healing methods.

With time, the professions developed, and because of science, medical professionals helped where the gods could not.

Ancient Medicine in Mesopotamia

A Mesopotamian medical professionals are in a medcial workspace, looking down to a patient to heal him after finding the cause of his illness.
image source: jennaancientmesopotamia.weebly.com

The Goddess Gula was responsible for healing and health. She was the ‘great physician of the black-headed ones’, the black-headed ones being the Sumerians.

Gula’s son, Ninazu, associated himself with serpents, the underworld and healing. He wielded a rod with two intertwined serpents. He was ‘Lord Healer’ and, like his mother, linked to health and healing (the continuation of life) and death and dying (life that comes after).

Serpents represent regeneration and transformation, hence Ninazu’s association. Together, they helped people pass over to the next life or recover.

The Gods and Ancient Medicine

Mesopotamians believed deities worked through doctors and maintained people’s health.

Suffering an illness or disease essentially meant an individual sinned and, therefore, submit to proper treatment. The treatments remove the demons sent by the gods as punishment. Diagnosing an illness always referred to the will and intervention of the gods.

Another cause of an illness was when the gods wanted to rectify sins and sent ghosts to cause trouble.

Mesopotamian Doctors

There were two primary Mesopotamian doctors: Asu and Asipu.

Asu were medical doctors who practically treated illness or injury. They associated with the temple of Gula and focused on the patient’s accounts of illness.

Asipu were healers who relied on magic. Contradictory to Asu, they focused more on the physical examination of the patient. Along with being doctors, they were also exorcists. They determined what offences to the gods or demons brought on the disease.

Another type of healer was Baru. They were the diviners who practised hepatoscopy (inspecting an animal’s liver) and made prognoses (predicting the likely or expected course of the disease).

Surgeons or vets could either be Asu or Asipu, but both types practised dentistry. However, it is unclear if they specialised in childbirth. Certain sabutu (midwives) delivered children.

Doctors at Work

Along with treating patients in temples, many doctors performed house calls. The City of Isin was the centre of Gula and, while under speculation, held a training centre for physicians. Nevertheless, they travelled to temples in various cities when needed. There is no evidence of private practice, but the kings had their own physicians.

Women could also be doctors. Before the rise of the Akkadian Empire and its views on the inferiority of women, they played a large role in medicine.

Doctors, men and women, shaved their heads and wore wigs to be easily identified. This was not an obligation but did leave speculation as to the exact number of female doctors.

With their tools, they travelled through the cities to help the sick. They understood the link between uncleanliness and sickness, even if it was not completely recognized at the time.

Treatments and Prescriptions

Social status played no part in receiving healthcare. Fees, however, depended on social status. Nobility paid more than ordinary people. The payment represented the treatment but was given in different forms.

For example, the nobility paid in gold, while ordinary people paid with a bowl of soup or clay cup.

Doctors disregarded social status and there is no evidence that they turned away a patient.

Asu prepared the pharmaceutical prescriptions in their place of business. Combined materials created the treatments, but this depended on religious reasoning and trial and error. Treatments were effective, according to translated texts that detail their effectiveness.  

Regarding wound treatment, there were three steps:

  1. Washing the wound.
  2. Applying a plaster.
  3. Binding the wound.

With medicine, there were prayers to the gods and incantations to ward off demons.

Medical Fields

Doctors specialised in many areas to treat their many patients. Patients often suffered gastrointestinal problems, urinary tract infections, skin problems, heart diseases and mental illness.

Mesopotamian doctors were not liable for their practice because the gods were the direct causes and curers of diseases. The only exception was surgery. If they failed, they had their hands amputated. However, little was known about human anatomy and physiology, so surgery was always filled with risks. Additionally, religious taboos restricted many procedures.

Ancient Medicine in Ancient Egypt

An Egyptian doctor, giving ancient medicine, to a man lying on the floor with the nerse behind him and people saying a prayer as the medicine is givne.
image source: trowbridgegallery.com.au

Egyptian medical observations, policies and procedures were so advanced that no one civilization surpassed them for centuries. Ancient Egyptians understood diseases are treatable with pharmaceuticals and the importance of cleanliness when treating a patient.

Doctors were male and female and specialised in different areas. Nonetheless, just like all ancient civilizations, ancient Egyptian doctors had little understanding of how organs worked. Therefore, according to their beliefs, supernatural forces caused diseases.

Magic was part of their way of life and ingrained in ancient Egyptian culture.

The God of Mafic and Medicine, Heka, carried a staff intertwined with two snakes.

Injury and Disease

Injuries were the easiest to understand and diseases were the hardest. The causes of diseases were less clear and led to problems with diagnoses.

As with the Sumerians, ancient Egyptian doctors believed the causes of diseases were a sin or demonic attacks. A demonic attack meant an angry ghost plagued the individuals. Another cause of diseases was that it was a god’s own way of rectifying a sin. Doctors treated diseases through the recitation of magic spells.

In addition to recitation, doctors used amulets, aroma offerings, tattoos and statuary. They drove away ghosts, appeased the gods and involved protection from a higher power.

Medical texts were incantations and spells on papyrus rolls, which relied on sympathetic magic and practical techniques. The science of medicine became a ‘necessary art’.

For treatable injuries, doctors intervened immediately.

Curable injuries meant the person did not need medical intervention. If they survived, the doctor would decide whether to intervene.

For untreatable ailments, doctors would not intervene.

Practical remedies dealt with obvious injuries, except toothaches or gum disease. Doctors believed they were the result of supernatural causes.

Perk-Ankh

Translated to ‘Home of Life’, Perk-Ankh was a library and school attached to a temple. Doctors were priests of Perk-Ankh. The concept behind this building included the healing knowledge of individual doctors.

Medical Professions

Doctors needed to be of pure spirit and body and literate. Each specialised in their own field and was known either as swnu, a general practitioner, or sau, who specialised in magic.

Midwives, masseurs, nurses, attendants and seers assisted doctors. However, with childbirth, midwives and women of the house were responsible for the delivery of the baby. There’s no evidence of medical training to be a midwife as it was not a medical profession.

Males and females could be nurses, a highly respected profession that assisted in procedures. There is no evidence that they received professional attention or attended a nursing school.

Wet nurses were essential. Ancient Egyptian women generally died after childbirth. After this realisation, there came a legal agreement that, should a mother pass, the family and a wet nurse will raise the child.

Dentistry was never widely developed, although it was a well-known profession. However, with the abundance of medical problems, it is unclear why there were not as many dentists.

Doctors and dentists used herbs and spices for medicinal purposes.

Medical Discoveries

Ancient Egyptian medical professionals recognised the importance of diets and a change in diets. They advised people to shave their bodies to prevent infection and avoid unclean animals and raw fish.

The ‘channel theory’ hypothesized that channels provided the body with routes for good health. Doctors observed farmers digging out irrigation channels for their crops and, therefore, linked it to human health. For example, blockage meant taking laxatives. However, even with this theory, doctors did not understand that the channels had different functions.

Surgery

Many discovered surgical instruments made in Ancient Egypt are still used today, just modified.

Every doctor knew the basics of surgery. It was a common skill, along with knowing how to effectively stitch wounds. To treat inflammation, bandages were bound with certain plant products. There were no anaesthetics or antiseptics, it was highly unlikely doctors performed procedures deeper into the body.

Through mummies, there is evidence of successful surgeries. Ancient Egyptians survived amputations and brain surgery for years and wooden prosthetic limbs were even found.

By preserving the deceased as mummies, they learnt how the body worked.

Ancient Medicine in Ancient Greece

A family in Ancient Greece, the ill mother seated with her son while family hear the news of the doctor.
image source: gohighbrow.com

Just like in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, illness was a divine punishment and being healed was a gift from the gods.

There were two crucial factors that led the ancient Greeks to heal and promote health: the military and sport.

Due to battles of war, practitioners needed to heal wounds, remove foreign objects from the body and look after the soldiers’ general health.

The Olympic Games originated in ancient Greece and promoted sport. Practitioners raised the need to keep healthy and, combined with sport, promoted fitness and prevented injury.

Practitioners took an interest in the body. They explored the connection between cause and effect, the link between symptoms and illness and the success and failure of treatments.

Nonetheless, there is a blur between the physical and spiritual worlds of medicine. Patients called the God Asclepius, the Dispenser of Healing and a highly skilled practical doctor, to his sanctuaries. Through the patient’s dreams, Asclepius gave advice to the doctors.

Discoveries

The ancient Greek medical practitioners discovered important factors that ranged from lifestyle to traumatic events.

Firstly, they discovered ways to ease or worsen symptoms of an illness. Secondly, physical structure affects the seriousness or vulnerability of an illness. Thirdly, there was a growing understanding of what could fight the causes of illness. Fourthly, there was a greater knowledge of the body through the balance of fluids (humours).

There were four humours that linked to a season, organ, temper and element:

  1. Black bile – season: cold; organ: spleen; temper: melancholy; element: dry earth.
  2. Yellow bile – season: cold and wet: organ: lungs; temper: phlegmatic; element: water.
  3. Phlegm – season: warm and wet; organ: the head; temper: sanguine; element: air.
  4. Blood – season: warm and dry; organ: gallbladder; temper: choleric; element: fire.

Balanced humours meant perfect health.

If the individual has an illness, there was either too little or too much of one of the humours.

Doctors and Practitioners

There were no professional qualifications to become a medical practitioner in ancient Greece. Anyone could be one and travel to look for patients to practice the technique of medicine.

Magic and incantations were a way to search for natural causes for illness. From there, people started looking for natural cures. Ancient Greek doctors were expert herbalists and prescribers of natural remedies. They preferred nature over superstition because of their belief that nature was the better healer.

If treatments were unsuccessful, doctors appealed to the gods. After treating the patient, the doctor took them to a temple to sleep. The daughters of Asclepius, Hygeia and Panacea, arrived in their dreams with two holy snakes to cure the patients.

Wounded Soldiers

One way doctors learnt more about their trade was through wounded soldiers. If something went wrong, soldiers were at a lower risk of causing problems.

Doctors dealt with wounds made by swords, javelins, arrows and sling projectiles. They knew the importance of removing foreign objects, such as arrowheads, and cleaning the wound. In addition to treating wounds, they knew the importance of stopping excessive blood loss.

Surgery

Practitioners avoided surgery because of the risks. They performed minor operations, particularly on wounded soldiers.

Opium was the common anaesthetic but was rare to come across. Soldiers were held down by multiple people during their operations.

Post-operation, flax or linen thread closed the wounds. Linen bandages, or leaves, dressed the wounds and were sealed using egg whites or honey.

As for treatment, a proper diet was important using plants with anti-inflammatory properties.

Discoveries

Ancient Greek practitioners discovered the basic knowledge of human anatomy through the observation of wounded soldiers and animal dissection. However, there were also certain beliefs and restrictions. The belief was that the human body changed when in contact with air and light. Moreover, some protested against the use of animals for such purposes and deemed it cruel.

In Alexandria, Egypt, Greek scholars dissected bodies and studied them. They performed vivisections on criminals. This led to two discoveries:

  1. The brain controls the movement of limbs, not the heart.
  2. Blood moves through the veins.

With a lack of practical knowledge, there were fundamental errors in learning about the inner body.

There was an attempt to balance the natural temperature of the body. With a cold, practitioners kept the sick warm. They kept sweaty and feverish patients dry and cool and, to restore blood pressure, they bled patients. To restore bile balance, patients cleaned their inner bodies.

All in all, ancient Greek practitioners led the medical profession in the current direction.

Ancient Medicine in Byzantium

An fast-paced disease is spreading through Ancient Rome, striking the people of Byzantine, who are waiting for the docotr to heal them.
image source: byzantium-blogger.blog

Byzantium (now Istanbul) was in the Eastern Roman Empire. Just like all ancient eras, they relied on prayer, churches and priests to heal diseases and plagues and perform medical marvels.

Priests maintain hospitals and to be near God, hospitals were near churches. Hence, when medicine failed, patients turned to prayer.

Physicians

The rulers of Constantinople, the Byzantine capital city, surrounded themselves with the best physicians. Although the Byzantines held physicians in high regard, they questioned their practice regularly.

Certain physicians oversaw all physicians in an area and each physician was responsible for 300 citizens.

Hospitals

Byzantine hospitals were the first to offer care to the sick. Since many hospitals were in large cities, they gained support from powerful groups in society. The modern hospital concept originated from early Byzantine hospitals.

Anargyroi

Translated, anargyroi means ‘without money’.

Healing institutions focused on the practice of practical, supernatural ancient medicine. They charged no feed and opened to all individuals.

To receive treatment, the sick spent a night at a church or shrine. During their sleep, one of two saints, Comas or Damian, will visit them. They suggest a particular treatment and the patient would pass it on to the physician. The next day, after treatment, the patient leaves.

Many of the recommendations by the saints were considered odd and, at times, sexual. There was no ‘conventional’ medicine.

Healers

There was no tradition of scientific medicine. It largely came from ancient Greek and Roman medicine.

However, there was tension between church and folk medicine because folk medicine was seen as magical. The combination of herbs and remedies created spells and incantations, but spells were separated from physical remedies. Often, these spells replaced Christian prayers and devotions.

Church

Just as the previous ancient eras mentioned, the Byzantines believed that God punished people by giving them an illness. Only repentance could lead to a full recovery, which soon became a way of curing illnesses.

The Church did not consider medicine a suitable profession for Christians.

Conclusion

A carving out of stone showing a roman doctor giving a remedy to a seated patient
image source: lifestylee.me

The similarities of ancient medicine led to discoveries medical professionals share today. The work and dedication of the past led to modern medicine and procedures. The doctors and physicians of ancient eras passed down their knowledge for future generations to learn and improve from. It is because of the past that we now have our current medical advancements.

“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

-Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richards’ Almanac.

 

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