Long before the first urgent care center or hospital opened its doors, humankind had doctors. Today, a doctor, whether in a walk in clinic, a private office, or a big hospital, goes through a lot of training to get there. The history of medicine is among the most varied and interesting you’ll ever find. Read on to learn more about the history of medicine and the doctors who administer it.
We don’t know much about what happened in prehistory and it can be hard to interpret what was going on in the days before things were written down. Mostly, we have to analyze human remains, surgical tools, and bits of plants to try to figure out what they were doing. Early humans were using what we would call “folk medicine.” This was primarily using plants to cure or prevent medical problems.
Spells and Witchcraft
When someone came down with a serious illness, most people in pre-history and in the ancient world assumed that a god or demon had cursed that person. The curse could have come because the supernatural being was simply mischievous, because a human enemy had called down a curse, or because the victim had in some way sold their soul. It only makes sense, then, that the very earliest medical “professionals” were more skilled with spells and incantations than with medications and surgery.
The Early Ancient World
It is in the Middle East and Egypt that the earliest records can be found, and doctors from these cultures have left records we can learn from. The functions of doctors were still heavily intertwined with divination, but they were also using established methods to treat abscesses, broken bones, wounds, dental problems, and even heart disease.
Indian and Asian Medicine
Records exist a bit later for these cultures, but their techniques were similar to the Middle East and Egypt, especially in conflating the religious with the medical. Some medical advances were hindered by religious prohibitions against cutting up a dead body. This meant that their understanding of the internal workings of the human body remained imperfect. However, Hindic doctors were pioneers in surgical techniques like stitching up wounds, splinting bones, extracting foreign bodies, and draining abscesses. Treatment with diet was very important in these cultures, as well, especially in China. The Chinese specialized in herbal and mineral remedies.
First Steps to Modern Medicine
Real understanding of human anatomy began with the Greeks. They pioneered a more scientific investigation of how the human body worked. The most famous doctor in human history, Hippocrates, practiced during this time, and it is from these doctors and this time that much of the modern doctors’ oath is based.
The concept of nursing began to develop in Christian Europe. Prior to this, families cared for their own sick. If someone contracted a feared contagious disease, such as the plague, they might be deserted entirely by terrified family and equally frightened doctors. In the medieval world, “saints,” and even some orders of nuns and monks pressed the idea of providing loving nursing care to the ill and creating places where the sick could be nursed. The medieval world also saw the rise of the first actually medical schools.
It was in the 17th century that modern medicine really began to come into its own, with important scientific thinkers like Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon. Medical breakthroughs became a regular event, and doctors were systematically trained in medical colleges. Testing of treatments, understanding of germs, and the scientific medicine movement really began to develop in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the 20th century, so many advances had been discovered that medicine would be changed almost all out of recognition. Life expectancies skyrocketed, training for doctors became far more rigorous, many diseases were nearly wiped out, and medicine began to tackle even greater challenges.
Medicine has come a long way since the early days. Next time you visit the medical care clinic, think about how far medicine has come, and be grateful we live in such an amazing time in history!