Medicine in the Ancient World Research Paper

Pages: 6 (2046 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 6  ·  Level: College Freshman  ·  Topic: Medicine

Medicine in the Ancient World

The introduction of medicine and primitive healthcare strategies to the ancient world is one of the giant steps that were taken to improve the lives of the citizens. Much has changed of course in the centuries that have passed since ancient medicine was being introduced, but it is interesting and instructive to look back at the beginnings of what we now know as modern medicine.

Acupuncture. An article in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine points out how fascinating it really is that a procedure that was created in the Stone or Bronze ages, acupuncture, is a very well respected and popular medical practice in 2011. "Could anything serious really be created… in primitive civilization" that has anything at all in common with medicine that is based on "modern physics, chemistry, genetics and molecular biology?" (Wolfson, 2003, p. 984).

Wolfson answers his own question on page 984: it could be that Chinese medicine -- in development period for many years -- has offered modern science and medicine "a good cognition of the human organism." The historical records available show that acupuncture was first mentioned around 600 BC, albeit the initial mention of iron dates back to 500 BC. That suggests that the initial acupuncture needles were likely made of "copper, gold or silver," metals that were available to humans "in small quantities" during the Shang era (1520-1030 BC), Wolfson explains.

Adding to the historical validity of acupuncture is the fact that the "Yellow Emperor's Classics of Internal Medicine," the original manual for how to practice acupuncture (written in the 4th Century BC) is still in use today. This book, Wolfson continues, is written in the format of a conversation between Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor) and his ministers; the first section is called "Simple Questions" and it embraces a philosophical approach to medical issues; the second volume "Spiritual Pivot (Ling Shu) is specific as to the basic channels and acupuncture points and "describes acupuncture techniques," Wolfson points out on page 984.

The actual application of acupuncture is based on "channels" on the body (where the needles are inserted) which are believed to have been discovered by ancient Chinese practitioners based on "meditation or the practice of sexual cultivation, which opened an 'inward vision'," Wolfson reports on page 987. And though some question how it is possible that acupuncture could have been developed in ancient times -- given that even contemporary science fails to explain the "energy channel system" -- albeit there is ample evidence the channel system "exists."

The First Pharmacists

"… the survival of ancient medical literature depended on two related factors: the copying and recopying over the centuries of such writings, and the continued existence of individuals and institutions both interested in them and in an economic position to buy and preserve them…" (Nutton, 2004, p. 4).

[Ancient medical literature also depended on the ability to be able to translate the ancient languages, as the following article establishes.]Textbooks point out to students that "science-based medicine and effective pharmacy" began with the Greeks, but journalist Stephanie Pain begs to differ. Yes, in the 5th Century BC it is known that Hippocrates did introduce "rational medicine" that was based on "diagnosis and a reasoned approach to treatment," Pain explains. And the so-called "father of pharmacy" (Claudius Galenus) was also a Greek. In fact Galenus is known to have been a surgeon to the gladiators in Rome in the 2nd Century, Pain continues.

But the Egyptians certainly practiced some kinds of medicine "long before the Greeks, but much of it was thought of as fanciful and dominated by magic," according to Jackie Campbell of the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology UK's University of Manchester, quoted by Pain on page 40. If it hadn't been for the problem of translation, from ancient Egyptian languages to English or another modern language, Campbell believes that it could have been long ago empirically established that the Egyptians had knowledge of pharmacy well before the Greeks. The "key" according to Pain, to establishing exactly what the Egyptians knew and when they knew it was to develop a "translation" of the written text (in a "vanished language") that is found on papyrus.

On those papyri records there are "some 2,000 prescriptions," but knowing what they are is not always possible, hence some of the history of ancient Egyptian pharmaceutical knowledge has been thought lost. But all is not lost because translators have made "educated guesses" and have made some amazing headway, Pain explains (p. 41). Translators in the 1890s trying to make sense out of the ancient Egyptian pharmaceutical entries on the papyrus looked up what drugs were known to society at that particular moment in time and tried to make a connection, Pain writes. But then many years later -- say in the 1950s -- another scholar is working hard trying to make sense of the inscriptions, and that translator look up drugs available in that time period. As a result of the differences in interpretation from 1890 to 1950, "…some 30% of ingredients in the papyri were disputed," Pain continues.

Campbell admits to Pain that she, Campbell, is not an expert in linguistics, so she used the next best approach -- science -- to authenticate the prescriptions. Because translators know that most drugs in the ancient world were derived from plants, Campbell's first check "was whether a plant named in a prescription grew or was traded in Egypt at the time the papyri were written. If it wasn't, she could rule it out" (Pain, p. 41). The fortunate part of this attempt to solve ancient mysteries is that "the flora of ancient Egypt is well-known," Pain explains; there are literally "thousands of botanical specimens" that have been collected from various archaeological sites and museums, and this helps enormously in the painstaking work that must be done to solve the riddles. And also many of the botanical specimens are "accurately dated" which is also helpful.

Moreover, many of the plants and herbs that were preserved are illustrated in sculptures and wall paintings, Pain points out. Also, science is able to extract "pollen grains" that are found in mud bricks from ancient Egypt, or buried deeply in the soil; core samples taken by geologists have been of great assistance to archaeobotanists to "reconstruct Egypt's past flora in enough detail to say what was indigenous or traded" (Pain, 41). The key to unlock the mystery has turned out to be ancient recipes, Pain writes (p. 42). After five years of difficult analysis, thanks to her focus on recipes (prescriptions) Campbell was able to list "all the drugs in the papyri, their sources and how they were used."

Given those discoveries, the science into ancient Egyptian medicines is now coming into focus, and some of the specific remedies are known. For example, the Egyptians were "especially keen on laxatives" (lubricants extracted from the kernel of the desert date); for indigestion, the ancient Egyptians prescribed an antacid of "powdered limestone (calcium carbonate)" a little different than what people take today for heartburn and indigestion, magnesium carbonate (Pain, p. 42). For diarrhea, the ancient doctors prescribed kaolin or powdered carob, or a plant containing "hyoscine, an alkaloid that relaxes smooth muscle and reduces gut movement" (Pain, p. 42). How about flatulence and intestinal cramps? Patients were given cumin and coriander, seen as effective "antispasmodics," Pain concludes.

Geriatric Medicine in Byzantine Times (324-1453 AD). Apparently the ancient medical texts of the Byzantine doctor were not nearly as difficult to decipher, because a great deal is known about the care given to people, in particular to the elderly, in ancient Byzantine times. Well, the fact that it was written Greek made it relatively easy to understand. The health problems of the aged were studied closely, and the article in Gerontology (Lascaratos, et al., 2000) points to the understanding physicians had of issues related to the elderly. For example, Aetius of Amida (6th century), the "physician of the aged," understood that the aged "have no desire for sex and their sperm is infertile… they harbor grudges, present immobility, unsteady step and trembling" (Lascaratos, p. 3). Meanwhile the Byzantine physicians believed that the dry skin and cold constitution of the body when people get old was due to "the loss of body heat… and substance, to the extent that the body became thinner and drier and could not function well" (Lascaratos, p. 3). The remedy?

Oribasius had a treatment for old age: supply food that provides heat and moisture to the body. That would include "suitable food which provides heat and moisture to the body, such as wind of good quality…warm sweet water baths, massage with oil…walking, moving on swings, exercises…" (Lascaratos, p. 4). Ioannes Actuarius prescribed the drug "acopon" for elderly people; it contained herbs (mullen and opbalsamum), mineral salts and "foam of nitre" (Lascaratos, p. 5). Constantine Melitiniotis in the 14th century recommended a combination of "ginger, nutmeg, several peppers, all pounded in olive oil and an elixir… [END OF PREVIEW]

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