Ancient Medicine: Greece and Roman Empire

Around 800 BCE   Homer in The Iliad gives descriptions of wound treatment by the two sons of Asklepios, the admirable physicians Podaleirius and Machaon and one acting doctor, Patroclus. Because Machaon is wounded and Podaleirius is in combat Eurypylus asks Patroclus to cut out this arrow from my thigh, wash off the blood with warm water and spread soothing ointment on the wound. Asklepios like Imhotep becomes god of healing over time.

Temples dedicated to the healer-god Asclepius, known as  Asclepieia, functioned as centers of medical advice, prognosis, and healing.  At these shrines, patients would enter a dream-like state of induced sleep known as enkoimesis .  Asclepeia provided carefully controlled spaces conducive to healing and fulfilled several of the requirements of institutions created for healing.. Some of the surgical cures listed, such as the opening of an abdominal abscess or the removal of traumatic foreign material, are realistic enough to have taken place, but with the patient in a state of enkoimesis induced with the help of soporific substances such as opium. Alcmaeon of Croton wrote on medicine between 500 and 450 BCE. He argued that channels linked the sensory organs to the brain, and it is possible that he discovered one type of channel, the optic nerves, by dissection.


A towering figure in the history of medicine was the physician Hippocrates of Kos (c. 460 – c. 370 BCE), considered the father of Western medicine.  The Hippocratic Corpus  is a collection of around seventy early medical works from ancient Greece strongly associated with Hippocrates and his students. Most famously, Hippocrates invented the Hippocratic Oath for physicians, which is still relevant and in use today.

Hippocrates and his followers were first to describe many diseases and medical conditions. He is given credit for the first description of clubbing of the fingers, an important diagnostic sign in chronic suppurative lung disease, lung cancer and cyanotic heart disease. For this reason, clubbed fingers are sometimes referred to as “Hippocratic fingers”. Hippocrates was also the first physician to describe Hippocratic face in Prognosis.

Hippocrates began to categorize illnesses as acute, chronic, endemic and epidemic, and use terms such as, “exacerbation, relapse, resolution, crisis, paroxysm, peak, and  convalescence.

Another of Hippocrates’s major contributions may be found in his descriptions of the symptomatology, physical findings, surgical treatment and prognosis of  thoracic empyema. Hippocrates was the first documented person to practice cardiothoracic surgery, and his findings are still valid.

Some of the techniques and theories developed by Hippocrates are now put into practice by the fields of Environmental and Integrative Medicine. These include recognizing the importance of taking a complete history which includes environmental exposures as well as foods eaten by the patient which might play a role in his or her illness.

Herophilus and Erasistratus

Two great Alexandrians laid the foundations for the scientific study of anatomy and physiology, Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos.  Other Alexandrian surgeons gave us ligature (hemostasis), lithotomy, hernia operations, ophthalmic surgery,plastic surgery,  methods of reduction of dislocations and fractures, tracheostomy.

Herophilus of Chalcedon, working at the medical school of Alexandrians placed intelligence in the brain, and connected the nervous system to motion and sensation. Herophilus also distinguished between  veins and arteries, noting that the latter pulse while the former do not. He and his contemporary,  Erasistratus of Chios, researched the role of veins and  nerves, mapping their courses across the body. Erasistratus connected the increased complexity of the surface of the human brain compared to other animals to its superior intelligence. In . Erasistratus ‘ physiology, air enters the body, is then drawn by the lungs into the heart, where it is transformed into vital spirit, and is then pumped by the arteries throughout the body


The Greek  Galen (129–c. 216 CE) was one of the greatest physicians of the ancient world, studying and traveling widely in ancient Rome. He dissected animals to learn about the body, and performed many audacious operations—including brain and eye surgeries— that were not tried again for almost two millennia. In Ars medica (“Arts of Medicine”), he explained mental properties in terms of specific mixtures of the bodily parts.

Galen’s medical works were regarded as authoritative until well into the Middle Ages. Galen left a physiological model of the human body that became the mainstay of the medieval physician’s university anatomy curriculum, but it suffered greatly from stasis and intellectual stagnation because some of Galen’s ideas were incorrect; he did not dissect a human body nor did the medieval lecturers.

The Renaissance rediscovered Galen. In 1523 Galen’s On the Natural Faculties was published in London. In the 1530s Belgian anatomist and physician  Andreas Vesalius  launched a project to translate many of Galen’s Greek texts into Latin. Vesalius’s most famous work,  De humani  corporis fabrica was greatly influenced by Galenic writing and form.

Ancient Roman  Medicine contributions

The Romans invented numerous  surgical instruments, including the first instruments unique to women, as well as the surgical uses of forceps, scalpels, cautery, cross bladed scissors, the surgical needle, and speculas.  Romans also performed cataract surgery.

The Roman army physician Dioscorides (c. 40–90 AD), was a Greek botanist and pharmacologist. He wrote the encyclopedia  De Materia Medica  describing over 600 herbal cures, forming an influential pharmacopoeia which was used extensively for the following 1,500 years.


Ancient traditional Chinese medicine

Assorted  plant and animal parts used in traditional Chinese medicines: dried Lingzhi, ginseng, Luo Han Guo, turtle shell underbelly, and dried curled snakes.

China also developed a large body of traditional medicine. Much of the philosophy of  traditional Chinese medicine derived from empirical observations of disease and illness.  and reflects the classical Chinese belief that individual human experiences express causative principles effective in the environment at all scales. These causative principles, whether material, essential, or mystical, correlate as the expression of the natural order of the universe.

The foundational text of Chinese medicine is the Huangdi neijing , written 5th century to 3rd century BCE.  Near the end of the 2nd century AD, during the Han dynasty, Zhang Zhongjing, wrote a  Treatise on cold damage, which contains the earliest known reference to the Neijing Suwen. The Jin Dynasty practitioner and advocate of acupuncture and moxibustion, Huangfu Mi (215-282), also quotes the Yellow Emperor in his Jiayi jing, c. 265. During the Tang dynasty, the Suwen was expanded and revised, and is now the best extant representation of the foundational roots of traditional Chinese medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine that is based on the use of herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage and other forms of therapy has been practiced in China for thousands of years.

In the 18th century, during the Qing dynasty, there was a proliferation of popular books on traditional medicine. Jesuit missionaries introduced Western science and medicine to the royal court, the Chinese physicians ignored them.

Finally in the 19th century, Western medicine was introduced at the local level by Christian medical missionaries from the London Missionary Society (Britain), the Methodist Church (Britain)

Because of the social custom that men and women should not be near to one another, the women of China were reluctant to be treated by male doctors. The missionaries sent women doctors such as Dr.  Mary Hannah Fulton (1854–1927). Supported by the Foreign Missions Board of the Presbyterian Church (USA) she in 1902 founded the first medical college for women in China, the Hackett Medical College for Women, in Guangzhou.



Ancient Indian medicine

Ancient Indian medicine

The Atharvaveda, a sacred text of Hinduism  dating from the Early Iron age, is one of the first Indian text dealing with medicine. The Atharvaveda also contain prescriptions of herbs for various ailments. The knowledge to use of herbs to treat ailments later formed bases for the large part of Ayurveda.

Ayurveda, means  the complete knowledge for long life is another medical system of India. Its two most famous texts belong to the schools of Charaka and Sushruta. The earliest foundations of Ayurveda were built on a synthesis of traditional herbal practices and  theoretical conceptualizations.  There after new  therapies dating from about 600 BCE onwards, and coming out of the communities of thinkers who included the Buddha and others.

According to the compendium of Charaka and  the Charakasamhita , health and disease are not predetermined and life may be prolonged by human effort. The compendium of Susruta, the Susrutasamhita, defines the purpose of medicine to cure the diseases of the sick, protect the healthy, and to prolong life. Both these ancient compendia include details of the examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of numerous ailments. The Susrutasamhita is notable for describing procedures on various forms of  surgery, including  rhinoplasty, the repair of torn ear lobes, perineal lithotomy, cataract surgery, and several other excisions and other surgical procedures. Most remarkable is Sushruta’s penchant for scientific classification: His medical treatise consists of 184 chapters, 1,120 conditions are listed, including injuries and illnesses relating to aging and mental illness. The Sushruta Samhita describe 125 surgical instrument, 300 surgical procedures and classifies human surgery in 8 categories.

The Ayurvedic classics mention eight branches of medicine: kayacikitsa (Internal medicine), salyacikitsa  (surgery including anatomy), salakyacikitsa  (eye, ear, nose, and throat diseases), kaumarabhrtya  (pediatrics), bhutavidya  (spirit medicine), and agada tantra (toxicology), rasayana (science of rejuvenation), and vajikarana (Aphrodisiac). Apart from learning these, the student of Āyurveda was expected to know ten arts that were indispensable in the preparation and application of his medicines: distillation, operative skills, cooking, horticulture, metallurgy, sugar manufacture, pharmacy, analysis and separation of minerals, compounding of metals, and preparation of alkalies. The teaching of various subjects was done during the instruction of relevant clinical subjects. The normal length of the student’s training appears to have been seven years. But the physician was to continue to learn.

As an alternative form of medicine in India, Unani medicine got deep roots and royal patronage during medieval times. It progressed during Indian sultanate and Mughal periods. Unani medicine is  similar to  Ayurveda. Both are based on theory of the presence of the elements (in Unani, they are considered to be fire, water, earth and air) in the human body. According to followers of Unani medicine, these elements are present in different fluids and their balance leads to health and their imbalance leads to illness.

By the 18th century A.D., Sanskrit medical wisdom still dominated. Muslim rulers built large hospitals in 1595 in Hyderabad, and in Delhi in 1719.



Early civilizations Egypt: ancient Egyptian medicine

One of  the large, earliest and meaningful medical traditions were developed in Ancient Egypt.  Herodotus described the Egyptians as one of healthiest people because of possessing the notable public health system.  He found the practice of medicine very specialized. Although Egyptian medicine, to a considerable extent, dealt with the supernatural, it eventually developed into more practical use in the various  fields  of medicine.

Medical information in the Edwin Smith Papyrus may date to a time as early as 3000 BC. Imhotep  in the 3rd dynasty may be founder of ancient Egyptian medicine and with being the original author of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, detailing cures, ailments and anatomical observations. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is regarded as a copy of several earlier works and was written in 1600 BC, contains earliest recorded reference to brain. It is an ancient textbook on surgery almost completely devoid of magical thinking and describes in exquisite detail the examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of numerous ailments.

The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus treats women’s complaints, including problems with conception. Dating to 1800 BCE, it is the oldest surviving medical text of any kind.

Medical institutions, referred to as Houses of Life are known to have been established in ancient Egypt as early as 2200 BC.

Ancient Egypt also had one earliest known physician Hesy- Ra . He was Chief of Dentists and Physicians for King Djoser in the 27th century BCE. Also, the earliest known woman physician,  Peseshet, practiced in Ancient Egypt  at the time of the 4th dynasty . Her title was Lady Overseer of the Lady Physicians. In addition to her supervisory role, Peseshet trained midwives at an ancient Egyptian medical school in Sais.





Blog at

Up ↑

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: