Medicine, Past and Present

(learning more about the progress of medicine throughout the centuries)

Prehistoric Medicine

There is much to learn about the healing arts, both natural, pharmaceutical, and with technology

Life has always been a dangerous venture, requiring as it does a ceaseless adjustment to an ever-changing environment. When we consider the difficulties with which the living organism has had to contend, the abrupt changes in surrounding conditions, from heat to cold, from moisture to dryness, from calm to storm; the unending search for food, the attacks made on it by competing forms of life, the hundreds of accidents to which it has been subjected for millions of years; when we take into account all of these things it is astonishing that life has managed not only to survive on the surface of this planet but to evolve into myriads of forms. One of the most valuable assets with which it has been endowed is its capacity to repair its own injuries and to overcome its illnesses, the healing power to which the name vis medicatrix naturae (The healing power of nature) has been given.

Animals possess an instinct that drives them when sick to seek remedies which will aid the action of this curative force; the sick dog nibbles grass, the owl rids herself of feather-lice by taking dust baths, and the wounded animal licks its wounds. It is from this primitive instinct in the animals to aid nature that man's healing arts have been derived. The story of medicine can be said therefore to begin with the history of disease, and disease is as old as life itself.

Primitive humans, as a product of nature, was subject to the same hazards as other animals, and protected by the same reflexes and instincts. They, too, had their genetic weaknesses, their degenerative disorders and his enemies, from wild animals, bacteria, to viruses

Bones tell tales about ancient diseases

The oldest evidence of illness in man is to be found in bones because they alone manage to survive, and there are many excellent examples of osteoarthritis or chronic rheumatism affecting joints among Egyptian mummies. We can also find evidence in mummies of other diseases; such as, gouty deposits in the joints, urinary calculi, gall-stones, tuberculosis of the spine, and even adhesions surrounding an old infection of the appendix.

Two problems seem to have been particularly widespread among the Ancient Egyptians, namely severe infection of the gums and chronic rheumatism, and as the two conditions are often associated, it is probable that they stand in the relationship of cause and effect, the dental caries being responsible for the rheumatism, We know that dental caries and gum infections are frequently the result of insufficiencies in the diet so it is quite likely that the nutrition of the Ancient Egyptians tended to be deficient in vitamins.

The beginning of medicine lost in the mists of time

Where can we start a story that goes so far back into the past that its beginning is lost in the mists of time? Our starting point is a period some seventeen thousand years ago when the earliest known portrait of a medical man was painted. On the walls of Les Trois Frères cave in the Pyrénées, there is a rock painting of a man, wrapped in the skin of some animal, with his legs and arms painted in stripes and with the antlers of a stag fixed on his head. The artist, who lived in the Aurignacian age, provided us with an authentic portrait of a contemporary medicine-man, or witch doctor, (someone who practiced healing, divining, or other magical powers), in his professional dress, and it is from the witch-doctor that the medical man of today is descended.

Medicine men used a great variety of techniques; such as, charms, spells, incantations, or rituals were used to ward off sickness. Some medicine men actually used medicine, a herbal infusion; for example, but even then they apparently sought to endow it with magic properties. The drawing on the wall of Les Trois Frères cave provides us with a starting point for the story of medicine.