Ancient Egyptian Medicine. Early Egyptian physicians believed human diseases were caused by angry gods and prescribed magic, mysticism, and rituals to cure illnesses. They thought evil spirits blocked vessels in the body which carry blood, air, semen, mucus, and tears to various organs, causing disease and death. Egyptian physicians used laxatives to unblock the digestive system and prayers to open blood flow to the brain and body. They believed the heart was the center of all life-giving channels, but confused arteries, veins, the intestinal tract, and nerves because Egyptian physicians didn’t understand human anatomy. They thought diseases are caused by angry gods, and that incantations, aromas, prayers to statues of the gods, and live animal offerings would cure patients’ illnesses. Ancient religious rituals may have actually made some patients feel better due to the placebo effect, because believing that prayers to angry gods can cure illness releases natural opioids in the brain that relieve pain. Early Chinese physicians developed a different theory to explain human illness.
Ancient Chinese Medicine. Early Chinese medicine was based on Confucian philosophy and organized the causes of illnesses around polar opposites such as hot-cold, wet-dry, light-dark, and cycles such as summer, fall, winter, and spring or birth, growth, and death. These primitive Chinese medical theories were based on superstition rather than science and used the complementary concepts of yin and yang to explain sickness and health. Chinese doctors believed vital energy flowed through veins that connect to different organs and that qi, a vital life force, flows through the body and maintains health, but can cause disease if it becomes unbalanced by changes in yin and yang. They treated illness by attempting to restore the balance between internal organs and the external elements of earth, fire, water, wood, and metal by prescribing rituals, dietary changes, exercise, and bathing.
Men and women were treated differently by early Chinese doctors. A sick Chinese male could be examined personally by a doctor, who would touch the patient’s skin, palpitate his organs, and ask him questions. In contrast, when a Chinese woman fell ill, a doctor had to communicate about her illness through a male family member and use a “doctor’s lady” (a female statue) to learn the location of her symptoms. A Chinese doctor was forbidden to touch or observe a naked female patient, so a male family member would point to the location of her pain on a “doctor’s lady” and describe her symptoms. Chinese physicians used four procedures to diagnose an illness: looking, listening, smelling, and touching. Centuries passed before physicians began to apply science to the study of sickness and health, but once they did, the practice of medicine began improving and led to more effective treatments for diseases.
The Dawn of Scientific Medicine. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who practiced medicine around 400 B.C., believed human illnesses are caused by natural factors and could be cured by surgery or proper medical treatment rather than prayer and magic. His scientific approach to disease was extended by Galen, another Greek physician who lived and worked in the Roman Empire around 160 A.D. In the 16th century Andres Vesalius began the systematic study of human anatomy, and a century later, William Harvey demonstrated how blood circulates in the human body. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek created advanced magnifying lenses and founded the field of microbiology because of his curiosity. At the end of the 18th century, Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine for smallpox after he noticed that milkmaids who had contracted cowpox were immune to smallpox. During the 19th century, general anesthesia, sterile surgery, the germ theory of disease, and X-rays were developed by William Morton, Joseph Lister, Robert Koch, and Wilhelm Roentgen.
Modern Medicine. The golden age of medicine began in the early 20th century with the extraction of insulin from animal pancreases by Frederick Banting, the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming, and the modeling of DNA by John Watson and Francis Crick. In the 21st century, teams of scientists from around the world mapped the human genome and Jennifer Doudna found a way to insert new DNA into a human gene, creating a tool able to change human evolution forever.
Assuming the current path of scientific discovery continues, effective treatments for cancer, dementia, and other life-threatening diseases may be found in the near future. However, there is no assurance research will continue to produce advances in the treatment of human disease. Medical miracles happen in unpredictable ways and require advance preparation, hard work, and scientific insight. Nature is unpredictable, germs mutate in dangerous ways, and they become resistant to antibiotics, so medical researchers must constantly struggle to maintain human health and advance the treatment of disease.