Where would we be without modern medicine? Dead, probably! If you look at all the famous people throughout history – Kings, Queens, poets, politicians, painters and more, more often than not they have died from some sort of disease that could be easily cured nowadays. Take tuberculosis, for instance – curable with a course of antibiotics. Although we’ve still got a lot to learn about medicine, it’s interesting to see what people in the past thought could cure even the most minor of ailments.
The Ancient Egyptians knew a fair bit about medicine. As well as their work with mummies and the dead, the Ancient Egyptians worked out some types of surgery and understood a bit of dentistry. So although we might think the Egyptians were gross for taking out the organs of dead bodies and storing them in canopic jars, this practice actually really helped them to understand how the inside of the human body worked!
Ancient Greece is where modern medicine in Europe really began to kick off. In fact, Hippocrates (the “father of Western medicine”) found out lots of things about types of disease, the lungs and the heart. Many of these things are still relevant to doctors today, which is quite an achievement considering it’s been 2 and a half thousand years! That’s why they still have to take the “Hippocratic Oath”, which sets out a basic code of standards and practice for all doctors.
Rome is known for basically copying the Greeks and exporting it across the continent, and medicine was no different. Early on, most of Rome’s doctors were Greek prisoners of war. But the Romans invented some surgical instruments that we still use today – scalpels, forceps, and even the type of saw they use to cut off people’s limbs (otherwise known as amputations).
In European medicine, not much really happened after the fall of the Roman Empire. There’s a reason they call it the Dark Ages! By the time of the Renaissance, knowledge of medicine was on the rise again. The Enlightenment was when science and the arts flourished, and so medicine benefitted from this. However, the best advances were probably around the time of the Victorian era.
Women had been dying in childbirth for millennia. Some said this was a punishment from God, much like childbirth itself was a punishment for Eve’s original sin. However, Ignaz Semmelweis found in 1847 that it was mainly because doctors and midwives didn’t wash their hands in between patients, spreading disease everywhere.
The Victorian era also ushered in a new way of mental illness – by trying to treat it with fresh air and a good diet, rather than locking people up and throwing away the key.
The 20th Century also meant there were rapid advances. The establishment of bodies like the World Health Organisation, and many nationalised health services worldwide, mean knowledge about medicine is far more easily communicated than it was before.
Nowadays, we’re looking for better cures for cancer, and we’re working on cures for diseases like HIV/AIDs. We’ve still got a long way to go, but as the Hippocratic Oath states, we should always respect the knowledge of those that came before us.