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History of medicine

History of Medicine

General Introduction Medicine is currently defined as the science of disease prevention, diagnosis, alleviation and cure. However the Greek pharmakos means both remedy and poison, indicating a more equivocal attitude in the past.

All human societies have medical beliefs - birth, death, disease and cure are explained in some manner. Historically, throughout the world illness has often been attributed to witchcraft and the will of the gods, ideas that still retain some power, even in 'modern' societies, with faith-healing and shrines still common.

As socities developed in Europe and Asia belief systems were replaced with a different natural system. The Greeks, from Hippocrates, developed a humoral medicine system where treatment was to restore the balance of humours within the body. Similar views were espoused in China and in India.

From the ideas developed in Greece, through Galen until the Renaissance the main thrust of medicine was the maintenance of health by control of diet and hygiene. Anatomical knowledge was limited and there were few surgical or other cures, doctors relied on a good relation with patients and dealt with minor ailments and soothing chronic conditions while epidemic diseases grew out of urbanization and domestication and then raged across the civilized world.

This idea of personalised medicine was challenged in Europe by the rise of experimental investigation, principally in dissection, examining bodies in a manner alien to other cultures. The work of individuals like Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey challenged accepted folklore with scientific evidence. Understanding and diagnosis improved but with little direct benefit to health. Few effective drugs existed, beyond opium and quinine, folklore cures and almost or actually poisonous metal-based compounds were popular treatments, if useless.

Medicine was aided in the 18th century and beyond by advances in chemistry and laboratory techniques and equipment, old ideas of infectious disease epidemiology were replaced with bacteriology (Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur), and for the first time actual cures were developed for certain endemic infectious diseases. However the decline in the most lethal diseases was more due to improvements in public health and nutrition than to medicine. It was not until the 20th century that there was a true breakthrough in medicine, with great advances in pharmacology and surgery.

Modern western medicine, despite the hypochondria of western society, is uniquely effective and widespread compared with all other medical forms. It is notably secular and material, indifferent to ideas of the supernatural or the spirit and concentrating on the body to determine causes and cures. The harsh scientific nature of modern medicine is the pinnacle of a very narrow concern, a particular aspect of the human condition has been exulted at the cost of considerable social disquiet, as evinced by anti-vivisectionism, eugenics, 18th and 19th century concerns about body-snatching and attacks at doctors for 'playing god' in the 20th century. And the capabilities of modern medicine have done little to improve the lot of poorer countries.

See also: Timeline of medicine and medical technology.

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