History of Medicine
Medicine has been practiced in one form or another since prehistoric times. Every culture had had its healers. Now, science-based medicine dominates. But how did these modern medical practices develop? What came before? How do these older traditions fit into the history of medicine? Do they still have place in the world of medicine?
Ladakh, India, is a remote region in the rugged foothills of the Himalaya Mountains.
These days when you think of doctors and healing, you look to modern, high-tech medicine. But this is only the latest in a long line of healing traditions. Other ways of treating illnesses came before modern medicine. In many places these older traditions are still used along side modern medicine. And in others, ancient techniques have been revived for use as part of a broad approach to treatment.
The history of medicine can be traced by the treatment options available to a sick person in Ladakh, India. Located in a remote trans-Himalayan region of northwestern India, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh has a Tibetan Buddhist culture. In Ladakh, a sick person can visit a shaman, go to a herbalist physician who practices traditional Tibetan medicine, or see a doctor trained in scientific medicine. He or she may even visit each in turn. Although these three healing traditions coexist in this remote area, they also represent the main stages in the development of medicine.
Image courtesy of John V. Bellezza.
The shaman was the first healer in many cultures. This is the usual outfit for a modern Tibetan shaman.
The earliest known form of healing practiced on a regular basis was shamanism. This practice is derived from animistic religions, which believe that there are unique spirits living in natural objects. The shaman accesses those spirits to heal a patient. Shamanism was once more or less universal. It continues to exist in a variety of forms in many cultures. It may be one of the primary choices for treating illnesses in remote regions. In areas with better access to modern medical care, shamanism may remain a vital part of the regional culture or as an alternative to modern treatments.
Traditional medicine developed next, likely as an outgrowth of shamanism. This type of medicine often includes physical, hands-on treatments and herbal remedies. Included in this category are such examples as Indian Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine, and other traditions found within many native cultures. These forms, all with ancient roots, are also closely intertwined with religious traditions. However, traditional medicine is also practical in its treatments, relying heavily on herbal remedies. Some types of traditional medicine, for example acupuncture, have become part of a popular alternative to relying solely on modern medical care, even in places where modern medical care dominates.
Scientific medicine is a product of the Western tradition that has spread around the globe. This type of medicine is strictly secular and based on knowledge empirically acquired and tested. In developed countries scientific medicine dominates. In other parts of the world modern medicine is popular but not all of the population has access to doctors and hospitals.
We can trace the history of medicine through advances in knowledge made by cultures all over the world. It is important to remember, though, that even as knowledge of the human body and diseases developed, it was a long time before actual medical practice advanced. This occurred because for a long time the medical practitioners were separate from the scientists. In addition, many of the scientific advances that truly revolutionized medicine did not occur until the 19th or even the 20th century.
Before that, medical care all over the world consisted largely of recommendations concerning diet, hygiene, exercise, and lifestyle. Small surgeries were performed, some effective herbal concoctions were administered. Physicians could ease some chronic conditions and cure some minor ailments, but they lacked the tools to fight most major life-threatening diseases. At the same time, however, some of their practices were effective for reasons that were only understood much later.
Image courtesy of University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Ignaz Semmelweiss, a 19th century physician in Austria, was the first to recognize that hand washing by the physician prevented infection in women giving birth. The painting Semmelweis—Defender of Motherhood, by Robert Thorn, depicts Semmelweis in a hospital delivery room.
Image courtesy of Nigerian Federal Health Education Division.
This public health poster from Nigeria promotes hand-washing to prevent disease.
For example, ritual purification is a part of many religious traditions and in some cases has translated into a practical emphasis on hygiene. Hand-washing, in particular, was practiced for centuries even by people who were otherwise little concerned about cleanliness. Yet its importance in controlling disease was not understood until 1847. That is when the Austrian physician Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-65) recognized that the high rate of fever and sickness among women who had just given birth in hospitals was due to the dirty hands of physicians who delivered the babies. These doctors came from treating other patients or performing autopsies without cleaning up. When he instituted rigorous hand-washing, the mortality rate plummeted. Even Semmelweis did not understand why, however. It was another few decades before it was established that many diseases are caused by germs.
Let’s take a look at shamanism, and the role it played, and still plays in some places, in treating illnesses.