History of Medicine Essay

Pages: 6 (1720 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 0  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Medicine

¶ … History of Modern Medicine

Looking back at modern medicine today, it is difficult to picture the many preliminary (if not necessarily primitive) earlier transitional stages through which the study of medical science had to progress to reach its modern form. The earliest historical period of medicine was a long period where any attempt to understand diseases and dysfunction was fused inextricably with primitive conceptual understanding of the physical world and the fundamental distinction between living and non-living entities. In varying degrees and applications, assumptions and beliefs that originated with prehistoric man persisted throughout much of the world until only a few centuries ago; even today, they are still evident in many human communities, particularly in undeveloped regions.

That stage of medicine never really ended; rather, it has been continually replaced with more sophisticated and accurate understanding of physiology and the nature of human disease and dysfunction. However, even during the early periods of human civilizations and knowledge, several pre-modern societies (independently) developed logically-valid thought processes and applied deductive reasoning and empirically valid tests of hypotheses to begin forming a genuine understanding of anatomy, physiology, and human disease.

Even today, many aspects of medicine and of medical decisions are heavily influenced by non-scientific psychological and cultural orientation and specific beliefs within different communities. However, the academic discipline of Medicine enjoys a general intellectual dissociation from external beliefs notwithstanding residual influences such as reflected in societal and personal choices about the applications of modern medical science deemed "controversial" in society. The fact that modern medicine has become such an important component of modern human societies is substantially attributable to the fact that human societies have progressed in their perceptions about the world as much as to the successful evolution of medicine from primitive fears and beliefs about spirits to empirical research and public health systems.

The Mythopoeic Stage of Medicine

In the pre-civilization stages of human evolution and very early, prehistoric human experience, human communities generally existed in complete isolation, never encountering other human societies. In retrospect, it is astonishing that the archeological evidence procured from such remote human societies reveals such similarity. Virtually every known prehistoric human community yields evidence of a focus on supposed supernatural influences on the physical world and on human fortune, physical health, and life.

Prehistoric human societies all seem to have conceived of human illness as being a function of relationships with the natural world in the forms of "gods" who reacted to human actions and other mythological entities with specific expectations of humans. Typically, men might suffer the medical consequences of trichinosis from eating uncooked meat or die from tetanus from an otherwise inconsequential wound incurred while hunting. These experiences would have been universal among even the most isolated early human communities. The near uniformity of the types of conclusions that were apparently drawn from these types of experiences led to very similar responses, such as rituals and sacrificial gifts of food to the gods and spirits who controlled the weather, the abundance or scarcity of prey, and the safety and welfare of those who depended on the physical world of the gods and spirits.

During the first historical periods in the millennia before the Common Era, there were several known examples of significant departures from the purely mythopoeic stage of medicine; on the other hand, the dominance of alternate forms of mythological beliefs and perspectives still dominated human medicine. By that time, astrologers offered what was then believed to be the "modern" view of medicine and of man's relationship to the external physical world, as depicted in the cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, the Egyptians had begun incorporating much more scientifically appropriate rational elements to explain human disease. Egyptian textbooks from as earl as 1600 BCE already began to resemble technical manuals for various surgical procedures, first-aid, and for diagnosing illness by identifying specific symptoms.

Despite the dominance of significant fundamental misunderstandings about the actual cause of disease, the Egyptians (and others) had achieved the crucial stage of distinguishing natural occurrences that were understandable rationally from medical consequences that were somehow attributable to the volitional will of angry gods and mythological spirits.

Even before the full departure from the mythopoeic stage of medicine, the ancient Romans had begun thinking about human health from a perspective that we would recognize today as community and public health systems. Roman doctors were paid by the state to treat anyone in need, and personal hygiene became an important concept based strictly on the apparent anecdotal connection between cleanliness and health.

Naturally, there still remained considerable room for error and conceptual misunderstanding: for one example, the early preoccupation with intestinal putrefaction as a major source of human disease. In that regard, there is, perhaps, no better example of the degree to which cultural learning still influences general perceptions about medicine. Specifically, the persistence of beliefs about intestinal putrefaction and the supposed cures for human disease and ill-health such as colon cleansers based on the same concept that are still a very large part of a billion-dollar-a-year "alternative health" industry in the United States despite the availability of state-of-the-art modern diagnosis and treatment of human disease.

The Shift to Deductive Logic, Experimental Observation, and Modern Medicine

Despite the recognition of natural causes of human illness and the applicability of deductive reasoning demonstrated by ancient Greek and Roman (and other) cultures much earlier in human history, the Middle Ages were completely dominated by preoccupation with supernatural causes and imaginary relationships between man and spirits. Throughout the period, European cultures conceived of medicine primarily in terms of supposed possession by evil spirits and encounters with mythical creatures such as elves, evil snakes, and dragons. "Preventative medicine" during this stage consisted of the wearing of amulets and charms in conjunction with ritualistic chants and other appeasements of angry gods and spirits. Royalty was also believed to possess special healing abilities through mere touch, based on the belief that that were chosen by the gods to rule their kingdoms in the first place. Even the emerging dominance of Christianity occurred in stages and over a prolonged period during which predominant beliefs about medical science reflected a fusion of Christian ideas and the more persistent of those left over from earlier Pagan beliefs about the supernatural and its effects on human health and fortune.

The beliefs of the Catholic Church dominated human thought and belief throughout the subsequent centuries and also greatly influenced the evolution of medicine from its earliest mythopoeic forms to its eventual scientific character. In Islamic societies, the golden age of Islam had already produced an analytical approach to studying the human body and its functioning, largely through the process of dissection and careful recording of anatomical structures. It is believed that Muslim doctors performed various minor surgical procedures such as cauterizing hemorrhoids, which was equally appreciate by Similarly, Islamic medicine also featured procedures that we would recognize today as cataract removal through the use of hollow needles. Trade routes between Islam and the Chinese would result in the publication of medical information on paper throughout Islam; later, the Christians would acquire both Islamic and imported Chinese knowledge in their encounters with Islamic societies.

Christians also benefited from Islamic medicine through their encounters but the Catholic Church specifically prohibited the study of anatomy, arguing that it was a sacrilege to desecrate the human form in that manner, even after physical death. Consequently, the earliest European physicians who studied human anatomy by dissection and who created the first semi-accurate artistic representations of human physiological structure necessarily did so in secret; it was not at all infrequent for them to procure subjects from robbing graves to circumvent religious prohibitions against this form of valuable anatomical study.

Meanwhile, less scientific concepts of medicine coincided with the gradual evolution of the modern approach to medical science. Herbalists had existed for centuries and the Middle Ages reflected a combination of their exotic concoctions, with those of Islamic herbalists and alchemy too. Alchemy originated in Rome several centuries before the Common Era before being exported to Mesopotamia. During the Middle Ages, Christians brought back the fusion of alchemy with a specific focus on the supposed power of distillation as a source of medicinal power. The fact that contemporary "naturopaths" still advocate holistic remedies based on the same principles is further evidence of the influence of society on perceptions of medical science in the human community.

Experimental science, in general, grew exponentially after the Renaissance, and the dominance and control of the Catholic Church over the scientific community was greatly reduced. By the end of the 19th century, the precursor of modern American medicine and Western medicine, more generally, reflected a basic factual understanding of medical science, and it usually did more good than harm, relatively. Specific breakthroughs such as in connection with Lister's Germ Theory of Disease and the development of antibiotics greatly increased the ability of medical scientists to improve human health as did the practical contributions of individual healthcare practitioners. Today, medicine is a… [END OF PREVIEW]

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