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Saturday, January 24, 2015

800 B.C.: The Greeks transform medicine

While medicine was born around 30,000 B.C., it was revolutionized around 800 B.C. by the Ancient Greeks.  The Greeks were the first to reap the rewards of accumulated wisdom and technological advancements.  They had time to enjoy life, to think, discover, and invent.

Around 1500 B.C. villages started to form in Greece that grew to become powerful city-states.  Each city state was separated by mountains, so they each developed their own government and culture.  Sometimes they even fought with each other.  The most famous such war was between the two wealthiest and most powerful city-states: Sparta and Athens.  (1, 88-90)

Each city-state was surrounded by villages and farms that provided food for everyone.  The trade off was the city-states offered protection from invaders.  (1, page 88-90)  Because of this arrangement, and because of slaves who did most of the work, people who lived within the city-states had plenty of time to think.

The people of wealthy city-states such as Athens decided to use this time to create things that made life more enjoyable.  At first each landowner was declared a citizen and had a say in government, yet by 508 B.C. many traders, merchants and business people who came to the city got rich there and wanted a say in government.  (1, page 93)

This resulted in one of the worlds first compromises that resulted in one of the world's first constitutions. The constitution declared that all free men were citizens. Each citizen had a right to vote and sit on a jury. This constitution, coupled with slavery and the hard work of the farmers, gave the citizens of Athens plenty of time to loaf around. (1, page 93)

They created bath houses where slaves kept the fires going so those who had time could take nice hot baths and socialize while doing so. They built a large Acropolis with huge theaters, a huge temple to their goddess Athena called the Parthenon. They spent time there bantering and philosophising. They asked questions about the world around them, and came up with theories.(1, page 88-90)

Lord Macaulay (1800-1859) described it best, perhaps humorously:
Almost all of a Greek consisted in talking and listening. His opinions on all subjects were picked up casually. If he wished to study physic, instead of shutting himself up with books, he walked down to the market-place to look for a gymnastic physician.
They built huge gymnasiums where the young could train and participate in various sports. They created Olympic events where the various city-states would compete every four years. They created schools amid the gymnasiums where children were educated about life. They were trained to be thinkers. Or, if you lived in Sparta, you were trained to be a warrior.

They watched as men were hurt in battle and while playing the sports they so enjoyed to watch, and saw that something could be done to help the wounded. They learned that certain medicines made the wounds better, and certain procedures helped the process of healing. After caring for the wounded they started wondering about other diseases: What causes disease? What is the cure?

Physicians were first educated between the ages of six or seven and twenty in the gymnasium, where they learned the arts of reading, writing, geometry, computation and astronomy: (2, page 18)
At the Gymnasia the course of education consisted, first, of music, which according to the ancient use of the term, included every study for developing the intellectual and moral faculties; and secondly, of gymnastics, in which was included every exercise for strengthening and improving the body. It was a rule with these people that what the boy first learns in sports he will afterwords love, and exercise with more ability as the serious occupation of his manhood; and hence, that children should practice as amusements such sports as are best suited to prepare them for their future occupations. (2, page 18)
It was at the gymnasiums, and the battlefield, where the Greeks were exposed to accidents, such as twisted ankles, broken bones, cuts, and bruises. From these experiences, and watching those skilled in treating them, young Greek boys were exposed to medicine. Some speculate the "Homeric heroes had probably acquired their surgical skill in this manner." (2, page 20)

About a hundred years before Plato and Hippocraetes, Pythagorus (570-495 B.C.) traveled to Egypt to be educated in the art of medicine, and he traveled back to Greece ("Crotona Graecia, now south of Italy). Thus it was in Crotona "where medicine was first cultivated as a department of philosophy." (2, page 21)

The Pythagorum school of medicine was formed. It was from here that the first known Greek physicians were educated: (2, page 21)
  • Empedocles, who wrote a medical poem (See The Beginning of Western Medicine)
  • Alcmaeon, who dissected brute animals
  • Democedes, the most skilled physician of his time
  • Acron, the first to prefer practical rather than speculative "inquiries." This idea will play a part later in our history.
The Pythagorean schools were ultimately replaced by schools formed around Asclepions. And in either case, medicine continued to be taught at schools of philosophy where "some attention was always devoted to medicine as a department of speculative knowledge." (2, page 20)

In this way, physicians were being taught by philosophers.  They were taught by the same philosophers who educated non physicians like Plato (427-347 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.).  This can be seen by "allusions" they made in their writing.  Plato, for example, divided medicine into five branches (2, page 22)
  • Pharmaceutic: Cures by many drugs
  • Chuirurgic:  Cures by cutting and burning
  • Dietetic:  Produces a change in the disease by a change in their diet
  • Nosognomic: Makes known the character of disease
  • Boethetic: Instant assistance palliates suffering (2, page 25)
So it was in this way medicine was transformed in Ancient Greece.  It was transformed from superstition to philosophy, and ultimately from theory to experience.

  1. Suter, Joanne, editor, "Fearon's World History," 2nd edition, Paramount Publishing, 1994
  2. Watson, John, "The medical profession in ancient times," 1856, Baker and Godwin, New York
  3. Meryon, Edwared, "The History of Medicine:  Comprising a narrative of its progress from the earliest ages to the present and of the delusions incidental to its advance from empiricism to the dignity of a science," volume I, London, 1861, from the miscellaneous writings of Lord Macaulay
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