A modern physician in some ways has little in common with historians’ concepts of what the first doctors may have been like. Much of history is shrouded in mystery, and what modern people know about the distant past comes largely from ancient texts and artifacts. Many people assume that ancient physicians were ignorant and ineffective, and that is true to an extent. Evidence shows, however, that doctors throughout the ages were not as ignorant as some would believe.
French Cave Paintings
French cave paintings that have been dated as being around 25,000 years old depict what many scientists believe to be the first physicians. These doctors understood some of the health benefits of certain plants and used them to treat their patients. Skulls with holes bored through them have been discovered, and many believe that these holes were created by ancient physicians in an attempt to reduce head pain.
The culture of the ancient Egyptians is still admired for many of its qualities, one of which is the ancient Egyptians’ advanced medical practices. Their physicians were heavily involved in the supernatural, but they also often had keen understandings of anatomy and diagnosis. Root canals frighten many people today, but ancient Egyptians were performing them 7,000 years ago. The ancient Babylonians also had medical advancements, one of which was a diagnostic test that physicians could consult.
Most people are familiar with the Hippocratic Oath that famously presents the concept of, “first, do no harm.” Hippocrates is considered the father of modern medicine by many for his and his students’ groundbreaking techniques and terminologies, some of which are still in use today. Other notable physicians from that period are Herophilus of Chalcedon, who documented much about the brain and nervous system, and Galen, who performed surgeries millennia ahead of his time. Greco-Roman medicine helped inspire a medical boom in Persia in the Middle Ages; Islamic physicians made advances in surgery, pharmacology, and other medical areas.
The first medical schools were founded in Italy in the 12th century, and medical care became more localized. Monastic institutions often had some sort of a hospital, and physicians relied less on the observations of the ancient masters and more on their own experiences and observations. The Renaissance saw an increase in physicians’ understandings of human anatomy, diagnosis, and medicine.
The 19th century produced an explosion of medical knowledge that resulted from the rapid technological and logical growth experienced by much of the world during that time. Psychiatry, immunology, and rudimentary genetics all experienced growth and led to what many refer to as the modern medicine of the 20th century. The rise of prescription drugs and immunizations saved numerous lives and led to an overall increase in life expectancy. Many physicians transitioned from working in private practices to working in a hospital setting.
Ancient medicine seems rudimentary by modern standards, but the work of the ancients helped later generations of physicians better understand medicine. Physicians are once again learning vast amounts of medical knowledge as technology grows again.