Ancient Medicine

Greek Medicine

Greek medicine is not a topic you will be tested on, but the ideas and beliefs from this era are the foundation for everything that follows – and you are tested on that.

You need to know that:

  • Several ideas and beliefs about medicine CO-EXISTED – this means people believed in more than one idea at once, even if they were contradictory. We could also use the word simultaneous in this context i.e. people believed in a few ideas simultaneously (at the same time)
  • Medical ideas co-existing is a theme that repeats itself throughout the history of medicine – look out for it
  • Belief in the supernatural was vastly important in Greek times. It’s worth mentioning as the Asclepion temples used by the Greeks were also used by the Romans (a time period that you are tested on). Greeks believed that if you went to a temple when you were ill, then during the night the god Asclepius would visit you in the form of a snake and cure your illness
  • Another belief was in natural causes and cures – using herbs/plants to cure ailments (ailments = another word for illnesses)
  • THE BIG IDEA came from Hippocrates. It was called the theory of the four humours Hippocrates proposed that the body was made up of four liquids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile (Please learn the spelling of HIPPOCRATES and PHLEGM) no, really, please do).
  • Hippocrates’ big idea was that if these liquids were balanced in the body then a person must be healthy. However, if they were out of balance and a person had too much of one of the liquids – let’s say phlegm, a typical symptom of the common cold, then it indicated that a person was unwell
  • This idea was both RATIONAL and LOGICAL
  • And to be fair to the Greeks it does makes sense – when people get sick they’d noticed that gross liquids came out of them in the form of snot with a cold and vomit (yellow bile) with sickness
  • Noticing what happened to sick people was, and still is, called CLINICAL OBSERVATION. Hippocrates loved a bit of clinical observation and used to write down everything his patients were experiencing. This was important because it sets up the theme of communication which runs throughout the course – you’ll hopefully remember from lessons that all the key people in medicine publish books and articles to spread word of their ideas – Hippocrates was no different. His observations were all written down in a whole series of books called the Hippocratic corpus (this means a “body” of works. You might have seen or heard the word corps being used to describe a group of soldiers, or the word corpse to describe a dead body. There’s a college that is part of the University of Cambridge called Corpus Christi – meaning the body of Christ)

Roman Medicine

Introduction to the Romans

  • The Romans wanted to keep their army and people healthy because they had an empire
  • Best way to maintain and grow an empire was to use healthy soldiers to take over new land and then send in healthy citizens and workers to populate the new territory
  • Had some understanding that cleanliness = good health – but couldn’t prove it as germs/microbes hadn’t been discovered yet
  • No forts or settlements were built near marshland as they believed “something” in the air caused disease. It was an idea that was picked up on in the Middle Ages when miasma was a big belief

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Beliefs About the Causes of Illness

  • GALEN AND THE FOUR HUMOURS: Continued belief in the theory of the four humours but Galen built upon the theory (see below)
  • SUPERNATURAL: Continued belief in the gods as both a cause of ill health (punishing people) and a cure (pray to them for forgiveness)
  • Belief in the gods (small g/more than one) existed at the same time as all the other beliefs

Treatments of Illness

  • TREATMENT OF OPPOSITES e.g. developed by Galen, if someone had a cold you would give them a hot pepper or chilli and if they had a fever you would give them cucumber to cool them down, bloodletting if they had too much blood (e.g. nosebleed)
  • NATURAL REMEDIES: At least 20% of natural remedies contained honey or garlic
  • HOSPITALS: were in forts and focused on treating soldier. There were four beds in each ward. Each hospital had its own kitchen, baths and dispensary for making remedies. Surgeons were on hand to fix battlefield wounds.

Galen’s Pig Experiment

  • Galen’s human anatomy was based on animals such as pigs and dogs
  • He conducted a public experiment on a pig (cut nerves) to show that the brain controlled the body and not the heart
  • Public display to attract the attention of other doctors – he was a bit of a show-off really…

Public Health

The way the Romans set things up in Rome was copied throughout the empire. Public health in Roman Britain while the Romans were in charge of us followed the same principles as it did in Rome.

  • AQUEDUCTS bridge-like structures (see picture) that brought fresh water into towns and cities from rivers and natural springs
  • PUBLIC BATHS were cheap (1 Quadrans) so that everyone could afford to use them
    • Baths of 3 different temperatures – hot, tepid and cold
    • Used oil rubbed on the body and then scraped off with a curved stick called a strigil to keep clean
    • Baths opened midmorning and closed at sunset.
    • Women were admitted in the morning, men weren’t allowed in until the afternoon – no mixed bathing!
    • 144 in Rome
    • Had stone seats and a hand basin. People were sat side by side with up to twenty other people
    • Often this time spent together was for socialising or conducting business (so to speak!)
    • Water brought in from the aqueducts was used to flush out the sewers
    • Took away waste from the toilets and public baths
    • Pipes were made from clay, wood or lead (some people were poisoned by this, not that they realised at the time)
  • WATER FOUNTAINS were set up in big cities for everyone to use