History of medicine

study of the development of medicine over time

The history of medicine is the history of mankind and its attempt to promote health, to alleviate or diminish sickness and suffering, and prevent the unnecessary spread of illness and disease. It is the story of the ongoing evolution of the practice or science of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease.

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from Andreas Vesalius, Fabrica
  • The history of medicine, of all the branches of that art, is the one to which least attention is devoted by physicians; and yet its study not only possesses great scientific value, but likewise includes an important germ of practical information.
  • Medicine and theology, now it would seem irreconcilably at variance, were in their early periods of development most intimately united, like twin sisters in the womb, whom we are unable for a long period to recognize as distinct beings, and of whom even after birth we cannot say which is the elder, since both were born at the same time.
    • Johann Hermann Baas, Outlines of the History of Medicine and the Medical Profession (1889) Tr. E. E. Handerson
  • To the naturalist, it [the history of medicine] teaches how the branches of his science, which lift their heads so proudly to-day, were originally mere offshoots of medicine, and have been only recently planted as independent growths upon a soil of their own.
    • Johann Hermann Baas, Outlines of the History of Medicine and the Medical Profession (1889) Tr. E. E. Handerson
  • An acquaintance with the history of his science is... especially indispensable to the practical physician, if he would thoroughly comprehend and penetrate the secrets of his profession. To him, indeed, it is the bright and polar star, since undoubtedly it alone can teach him the principles of a medical practice independent of the currents, the faith and the superstition of the present. Moreover, it offers him as scientific gain, through the knowledge of the past, the measure for a just and well-founded criticism of the doings of his own time, places in his hand the thread by which he unites past conditions and efforts with those of the present, and sets before him the mirror in which he may observe and compare the past and present, in order to draw therefrom well-grounded conclusions for the future.
    • Johann Hermann Baas, Outlines of the History of Medicine and the Medical Profession (1889) Tr. E. E. Handerson
  • We prize infinitely less the fact that history, among almost all people, presents to our eyes the immortal gods as the authors of medical art, than that it teaches us how mortal men have struggled continually after god-like aims—the prevention, the cure, or at least the alleviation of the woe and suffering imposed as an unavoidable heritage, and in a thousand different forms, upon us created beings—even though to-day, as in the past, these aims have been only imperfectly attained.
    • Johann Hermann Baas, Outlines of the History of Medicine and the Medical Profession (1889) Tr. E. E. Handerson
  • Medicine is a science which hath been... more professed than laboured, and yet more laboured than advanced: the labour having been, in my judgment, rather in circle than in progression. For I find much iteration but small addition. It considereth causes of diseases, with the occasions or impulsions; the diseases themselves, with the accidents; and the cures with the preservations. The deficiencies which I think good to note being a few of many, and those such as are of a more open and manifest nature, I will enumerate, and not place.
    • Francis Bacon, The Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Human, 2nd Book to the King (1605) EnglishTr. Francis Headlam, translation revised by James Spedding, The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon (1905) p. 105
  • To attempt to isolate the history of medicine, and to comprehend its curious ebbs and flows of doctrine from medical writings only, is like cutting a narrow strip from the center of a piece of tapestry and speculating upon the origin and purpose of the cut threads of patterns that may be found in it.
    • John Shaw Billings, as quoted by Fielding Hudson Garrison, An Introduction to the History of Medicine, with Medical Chronology, Bibliographic Data and Test Questions (1921)
  • When we take an extended view of the progress of medicine, tracing it from its scanty sources, in the most remote periods of society, and observe its course, as gradually augmented by the stores of Grecian and Roman learning, obscured by the darkness of the middle ages, and again bursting forth in the copious and almost overwhelming streams of modern literature, we are naturally led to separate the narrative into three divisions, corresponding to the three great chronological periods. The first of these will comprehend the history of practical medicine, from the earliest records which we possess, to the decline of Roman literature; the second will contain an account of the state of the science, through what are termed the dark ages, until the revival of letters; the third will commence with the establishment of the inductive philosophy, and be continued to the commencement of the nineteenth century.
  • The improvement in the healing art has been nearly in proportion to the advancement of the other arts of life, and to the gradual progress of knowledge on all subjects intimately connected with our existence or welfare.
    • John Bostock, Sketch of the History of Medicine: From Its Origin to the Commencement of the Nineteenth Century (1835)
  • The probability... is that the priests of the Egyptians were at the same time their physicians. This appears to have been the case among the Jews and the Greeks, who are supposed to have borrowed from the Egyptians many of their institutions; and indeed it seems to be the natural progress of society in its earlier periods, when the priests were generally the depositaries of knowledge.
    • John Bostock, Sketch of the History of Medicine: From Its Origin to the Commencement of the Nineteenth Century (1835)
  • The Greeks soon excelled the Egyptians in medicine, so late as the time of Plato, the Pastopheri, or medical division of the hierarchy, are found not altogether to have lost their former celebrity. Some of the distinguished Greek physicians went to Egypt, in order to study medicine under the Egyptian priesthood. The Pastopheri were keepers of the temples, and the sick who resorted there for aid came in the first instance into their hands, and they were thus called upon more frequently than others, both to examine the patient and to prescribe a remedy. That the upper ranks of the hierarchy, the higher orders of the sacred colleges also, attended to medical practice, we have positive proof. Plato and Euripedes, during their residence in Egypt, were both cured of an attack of illness by such.
  • If we examine the great eras in civilization, Medicine will be found to have progressed as rapidly as the physical sciences generally. The discoveries of Columbus and successive navigators, were not earlier nor more important in geography, than those of Mondini, Beranger, Vesalius, and Sylvius, in anatomy. Copernicus did not earlier conceive the errors of the Ptolemaic astronomy, than Servetus, R. Columbus, and Cesalpine the errors of Galenic physiology; and Galileo, who demonstrated the movements of the earth and planets around the sun, was a cotemporary with Harvey, who demonstrated the circulation of the blood. The universal law of Newton for the solar system, was not greatly in advance of that of Haller of the laws and special forces of life. If the great philosopher established that the force manifested in the fall of an apple to earth, is the same as that which keeps the planets in their orbits, so the pathologist has shown that the laws of inflammation in the deep-seated and vital organs are identical with those that are seen in the smallest inflammatory point on the skin. And how much might be added on the application of physical laws in diagnosis, the prevention of small pox, the easy cure of autumnal fever, etc., to show that in point of progress Medicine marches hand in hand with kindred sciences.
  • The epidemics that formerly terrified the nations leaving in their trail desolations worse than the tornado have been shorn of their terrors. The prevalence of small pox has been almost prevented by Jenner's discovery of vaccination. The treatment of cholera is now so well understood that it has lost its former desolating power. Human life has been greatly lengthened in the last hundred years. The reports of the Parisian hospitals show that while in 1805 one died in seven who were admitted, now only one dies in twelve... In surgical practice, the saving of life at present exceeds by more than thirty five per cent. ...In midwifery practice, one hundred and fifty years ago, according to Dr. Merriman, one in forty died. At the close of his tables, (1828) only one in one hundred and seven died, and at this time perhaps not one in two hundred and fifty dies.
    • Cornelius G. Comegys (Nov. 1, 1855) Translator's Preface to Pierre-Victor Renouard, History of Medicine: From Its Origin to the Nineteenth Century, with an Appendix, Containing a Philosophical and Historical Review of Medicine to the Present Time (1867)
  • The history of medicine is... the history of humanity itself, with its ups and downs, its brave aspirations after truth and finality, its pathetic failures. The subject may be treated variously as a pageant, an array of books, a procession of characters, a succession of theories, an exposition of human ineptitudes, or as the very bone and marrow of cultural history.
    • Fielding Hudson Garrison, An Introduction to the History of Medicine, with Medical Chronology, Bibliographic Data and Test Questions (1921) Preface to the 3rd edition
  • Under different aspects of space and time, all phases of folk-medicine and ancient medicine have been essentially alike in tendency, differing only in unimportant details. In the light of anthropology, this proposition may be taken as proved. Cuneiform, hieroglyphic, runic, and palm-leaf inscriptions all indicate that the folk-ways of early medicine, whether Accadian or Scandinavian, Slavic or Celtic, Roman or Polynesian, have been the same—in each case an affair of charms and spells, plant lore and psychotherapy, to stave off the effects of supernatural agencies.
    • Fielding Hudson Garrison, An Introduction to the History of Medicine, with Medical Chronology, Bibliographic Data and Test Questions (1921)
  • The history of Medicine is largely the history of science and philosophy. It is not a narrative of events simply, but more a tracing of the evolution of the various branches of the sciences, the ensemble of which comprises Medicine.
    • David Allyn Gorton, The History of Medicine, Philosophical and Critical (1910) Vol. 1
  • The history of Medicine is... a study of the progress of the science and art of caring for living beings in health and disease, and of ideas fundamental to them, and only incidentally of men who distinguished themselves in their advancement.
    • David Allyn Gorton, The History of Medicine, Philosophical and Critical (1910) Vol. 1
  • Physicians have, as a rule, taken their theories from the philosophers. ...seeking by a show of great words and learned phrases to give to their statements an evidence of truth that they did not have, and that they could never acquire. When the philosophers began introduce a critical spirit into human knowledge, physicians were also the first not to admit any principle which was not the result of accurate observation. Nothing could be more natural, therefore, than that physicians, in their search for data that were demonstrable, should often find themselves unwittingly in conflict with deductions predicated upon imaginary, revealed, or supernatural sources; the more so, since... the philosophy of man both in health and disease, physiologically and pathologically, and in his twofold nature—conscious and sub-conscious,—allies him with both systems of thought, the Physical and the Psychical.
    • David Allyn Gorton, The History of Medicine, Philosophical and Critical (1910) Vol. 1
  • However arid and uninviting the prospect of a History of Medicine may appear at a distance, it will be found gradually to improve, and become full of interest wonder and animation as we proceed. ...The History of Medicine is ...the history of the human species, uncontaminated by those civil discords and fearful atrocities, those crimes and disorders which blot the page of other histories, and stamp man, created in the image of his maker, with the visage of a fiend and the heart of a brute. The History of Medicine, on the contrary, is the history of peace and good will, of endless harmony, and unceasing philanthropy. Instead of recording the desolations of war, and the growth of immorality—the deadly effects of human passions, and the bloody triumphs of senseless ambition—her province is to note the diminution of mortal suffering; and the only triumphs which she records are those obtained over sickness, death, and Sorrow.
  • It is hardly an exaggeration to summarize the history of four hundred years by saying that the leading idea of a conquering nation in relation to the conquered was, in 1600, to change their religion; in 1700, to change their trade; in 1800, to change their laws; and in 1900, to change their drainage. May we not then say, that on the prow of the conquering ship in these four centuries first stood the priest, then the merchant, then the lawyer, and finally the physician?
  • Medicine appears to have been very early seized upon by the priests, as an instrument of great power; and thus mixed up and blended with religious superstitions, it was practised by a sect of the Egyptian priesthood, under the denomination of Pastopheri.
    • David Macbeth Moir, Outlines of the Ancient History of Medicine (1831)
  • [W]hen they write incantations, and utter them as to the stars, not only to [the bodies and] souls of these, but also to things superior to soul, what do they effect? They answer, charms, allurements, and persuasions, so that the stars hear the words addressed to them, and are drawn down; if any one of us knows how in a more artificial manner to utter these incantations, sounds, aspirations of the voice, and hissings, and such other particulars as in their writings are said to possess a magical power. ...They likewise pretend that they can expel disease. And if, indeed, they say that they effect this by temperance and an orderly mode of life, they speak rightly, and conformably to philosophers. But now when they assert that diseases are daemons, and that they are able to expel these by words, and proclaim that they possess this ability, they may appear to the multitude to be more venerable, who admire the powers of magicians; but they will not persuade intelligent men that diseases have not their causes either from labours, or satiety, or indigence, or putrefaction, and in short from mutations which either have an external or internal origin. This, however, is manifest from the cure of diseases. For disease is deduced downward, so as to pass away externally, either through a flux of the belly, or the operation of medicine. Disease, also, is cured by letting of blood and fasting. ...The disease ...was something different from the daemon. ...The manner, however, in which these things are asserted by the Gnostics, and on what account is evident; since for the sake of this, no less than of other things, we have mentioned these daemons. ...And this must every where be considered, that he who pursues our form of philosophy, will, besides all other goods, genuinely exhibit simple and venerable manners, in conjunction with the possession of wisdom, and will not endeavour to become insolent and proud; but will possess confidence accompanied with reason, much security and caution, and great circumspection.
  • It is evident, indeed, that the practitioner who has no faith in the eflicacy of his art, can not devote himself to the study and practice of it, with the necessary zeal and perseverance. But, it will not suffice for the physician only to be convinced of the utility of the remedies he prescribes; it is also very advantageous to the success of the treatment, if the patient share his confidence in them. It is, then, important to all of us, to form early a reasonable opinion on the degree of efficacy and certainty that may be attained in medicine. Now we shall not be able to draw the motives of such an opinion from any better source than the history of this science.
  • Medicine... was called in its origin the Art of Healing. It consisted at that time, in a succinct description of diseases, which had been observed, and the indication of the remedies employed to combat them. These two parts... relate to man in a state of disease only. Subsequently, those who devoted themselves to the practice of Medicine, enlarged, gradually, the field of their observations. Nosological descriptions became more extended and numerous, and the therapeutical indications more precise. They became convinced, that to understand diseases well, it was necessary to study man in a state of health. Thus Anatomy... and Physiology... became important branches of medical science. Experience, also, taught men that it is always more important, and often easier, to prevent the development of certain diseases, than to arrest their progress when once developed. Consequently physicians... traced the rules for the preservation of health, and the collection of these rules constituted a new branch of the art called Hygiene. These successive additions necessitated a change in the definition of Medicine; the first, not embracing any longer all the departments of the science, the following was then nearly unanimously adopted: "Medicine is a science which has for its aim, the promotion of Health, and the cure of Disease."
    • Pierre-Victor Renouard, History of Medicine... (1867)
  • Two interesting ramifications are developed recently, from this majestic trunk of science devoted to physical man. The first named Orthopaedia, teaches how to correct certain exterior deformities, whether accidental or congenital; the success it has attained, and the extension it has acquired, make it already a special branch of Medicine. The second ramification is called Phrenology, a Greek word, which signifies, literally, a discourse on thought, or on the faculties of the soul. But, by thought, here, is meant the organ which serves, more particularly, for its manifestation. It is then the organ of thought, that is to say, the encephalon, of which Phrenology treats. Those who have made a special study of this branch, believe that the development of the faculties of the soul, or rather, the manifestation of these faculties, depends on the volume and the form of certain parts of the encephalon... the last definition that we have given to Medicine, appears to me a little too restrained, and it may be advantageously replaced, I think, by the following:—"Medicine is a Science, which aims at the Preservation of Health, the cure of Diseases, and the Physical perfection of Man."
    • Pierre-Victor Renouard, History of Medicine... (1867)
  • To the historian, Medicine presents itself in three principal phases, viz: as a Profession, as an Art, and as a Science.
    • Pierre-Victor Renouard, History of Medicine... (1867)
  • In the point of view of an Art... Medicine appears to me to have followed a constantly progressive march from its origin to the death of Galen. Then it remained stationary, or even retrograded, at least in Europe, until the end of the fourteenth century... But from this epoch, the Healing Art took a new bound, and acquired, from generation to generation, remarkable perfection. Those who deny the progress of Medicine, have never seriously studied its history.
    • Pierre-Victor Renouard, History of Medicine... (1867)
  • Whatever this erudite historian in Medicine may say, doubt is not the last word of science, it is only the commencement of it, the point of departure. It is merely a favorable disposition for acquiring knowledge, certainty, or at least conviction. So taught Aristotle, so proclaimed Descartes, and the intimate sense of each one of us confirms the same. When we undertake the search for truth, it is with the desire and hope of attaining it, and if persuaded in advance that this desire and hope are vain... we would rest in careless repose, rather than uselessly fatigue ourselves in the pursuit of a chimera.
    • Pierre-Victor Renouard, History of Medicine... (1867) commenting on Kurt Polycarp Joachim Sprengel's statement "Skepticism in Medicine is the top stone of the science and... it is the wisest part to regard all opinions with indifference and adopt none."
  • Celebrated physicians influence the progress of their Science and the value of their Art, not by their writings only, but by their oral teachings, character, and conduct. Their lives offer, often, models for imitation, and sometimes, also, faults and errors to be avoided. Often, too, the early education of a man, and the circumstances in the midst of which he was reared, explain the peculiarity of his genius, and give the key to his successes and reverses. For these reasons, I could not neglect entirely some biographic details relative to the most famous physicians, especially when these details had some connection with the general history of the Art, or embraced some moral considerations.
    • Pierre-Victor Renouard, History of Medicine... (1867)
  • Of capital interest in the history of medical theories is, that they are all derived more or less directly, from some system of philosophy; so that only an incomplete idea of them could be obtained if the philosophic sources from which they were drawn were unknown. But too much importance must not be attached to these analogies, nor must the value of medical theories be judged by them... a philosophic system may be false as a whole and yet true in its particular application to Medicine. On the other hand, we may, by false logic, deduce an erroneous medical theory from an irreproachable philosophic system. Thus, then, after having indicated the philosophic ideas with which each medical doctrine may seem to be related, we shall judge this in itself, and relative to its practical consequences.
    • Pierre-Victor Renouard, History of Medicine... (1867)
  • Rome at an early period gave birth to several philosophers and practitioners in the art of healing. Cornelius Celsus['s] ...works on medicine show the advanced state of surgery and medicine during the Roman Empire. ...Of the methods of administration employed in early Roman pharmacy, the malagma was commonly used. It was a kind of soft mass composed of herbs and grass beaten up to the consistency of a thick paste, and applied to the skin. Numerous formulae for malagmas are given, in which pellitory, myrrh, resin, cardamoms, ammoniacum, galbanum, etc., are included. Their malagmas corresponded with our ointments. They also used plasters, of which the basilicon of galbanum, pitch, resin, and oil, in an improved form, has survived two thousand years. Troches, for healing wounds, were composed of dry medicines held in suspension by some liquid such as wine or oil. Pessaries (vaginal) were originated by the Greeks, who called them pessi. The ingredients were placed in a piece of wool, and thus used. Powders and snuffs were also common methods of administration. ...The Greeks called their embrocations or ointments euchrista. The catapotia was the method used for internal administration in liquid form, for which many recipes are given by Celsus.
    • Charles John Samuel Thompson, The Mystery and Romance of Alchemy and Pharmacy (1897) pp. 39-40.
  • The earlier faiths of the world which ascribed the origin of mankind to Divinity, also associated the technique of medicine with the offices of religious worship. They named gods as the first physicians; these famous hero-chieftains, gifted men who were instinct with enthusiastic fervor, the Rephaim and giant-minds among the tribes and peoples of the earth. The temples were often hospitals to which the sick resorted for counsel and healing medicines, believing that the means of cure had been revealed there by the guardian divinity of the shrine. The priests were regarded as physicians for disorders of the body; prophets and diviners were consulted for those who suffered from disease, and the wisdom of the philosophers included the knowledge of treating physical maladies. ...Pythagoras, Aristotle, Athenæos, the early Christian teachers, the mystics of later centuries, down to our own times, not only gave instructions to their disciples in arcane, metaphysical and other learning, but also treated the sick and ministered to their bodily injuries.
    • Alexander Wilder, "History of Medicine: A Brief Outline..." (1901)
  • Indeed, we may regard it as an axiom, that the knowledge which is anywhere possessed of the art of healing, is the measure of the refinement and civilization to which the people have attained. Man is civilized by virtue of social relations; and refinement is the becoming divested from grossness, vulgarity, and the evil manners which are characteristic and incident to a living for one's self alone. Selfishness is savagery; and a state of society in which self-interest is the ruling element is hardly yet reclaimed from the state of barbarism. It is of little avail to appeal to skill in mechanics, engineering, and other attainments in the plane of material evolution. These are not adequate proof of spiritual advancement. Kindly sentiment toward others, sincere regard for their welfare, charity in will and act, make the only real culture and civilization. The art and technique of healing proceed from these qualities, and cannot flourish apart from them.
    • Alexander Wilder, "History of Medicine: A Brief Outline..." (1901)
  • The History of the Healing Art is as old as the history of the human race. The amber of antiquity has not preserved the name or any monument of the benefactor who first ventured upon the attempt to relieve the maladies of his fellow beings. To know so much would be equivalent to knowing the origins of civilization... What is regarded as learning, erudition, or wisdom, is a treasure which others have won and possessed before us. Every great thought has had a precursor, every great man a predecessor. ...We have no Father of Medicine, no Founder of the Healing Art, except in eponym.
    • Alexander Wilder, "History of Medicine: A Brief Outline..." (1901)

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