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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > August 2015 > Timeline: Medicine

Timeline: Medicine

The story of medicine is long and gruesome yet, from trepanning to transplants, it continues to provide humankind’s most spectacular advances

The doctor will see you now

Muscles to organs, nervous system to blood circulation, the human body is puzzlingly complex. How to look after it when something goes wrong has been a lesson lasting thousands of years, and there’s still so much we don’t understand. To unravel the story of medicine – with its roots in prehistoric times, boasting some of the greatest minds of antiquity and witnessing an explosion of advances in the last 200 years – is a formidable challenge. From the first experiments with trepanning to the sophisticated operations and pharmaceutical drugs we benefit from today, it spans civilisations around the world over several millennia, and across countless fields of medicine and physiology.

A 14th-century doctor performs trepanation (see Surgery, page 72) – where a hole is drilled in the head

In order to give a small justice to this rich story, it is important to explore some key fields, such as surgery, nursing and anatomy; some of the major developments like germ theory and anaesthetics; as well as the physicians who led the way, chief of whom was the ‘father of medicine’, the Ancient Greek Hippocrates. Hold tight, as this whistle-stop tour starts its expedition through humankind’s endless pursuit for medical mastery…

Free of germs and with state-of-the-art equipment, modern operating theatres are very different to what ancient doctors worked with

HOLE IN THE HEAD

Dozens of prehistoric skulls have been found with trepanation holes. Several have signs that the skulls were healing, so it is thought many survived the surgery.

FATHER OF MEDICINE

Ancient Greece was by no means the birthplace of medicine. Even in prehistoric times, there is evidence that people were experimenting with herbs to treat illness, while the early cultures of China, India, Babylonia and particularly Egypt were developing their own techniques. Yet it is a Greek who is today considered the ‘father of medicine’: Hippocrates of Cos.

Little is known about him – in fact, he may have been several men – but Hippocrates represents a move from superstition and magic towards reason and the examination of the body. Working in the fifth century BC, he believed a human was made up of four ‘humours’ (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) and diseases were caused by an imbalance between them. So to diagnose a patient, it was necessary for Hippocrates to analyse such elements as their faeces, mucus, vomit and earwax. Humorism is defunct now, but it was the overarching belief of the human anatomy until the 19th century.

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The August 2015 issue of History Revealed
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