Today's ancient pharmacists

Updated Saturday, 1st January 2005
The pharmaceutical-rich shelves of modern Western chemists and hospitals filled with sophisticated technologies seem far removed from the home remedies and medicines of the past, but are modern medical technologies really so different? Discover today's ancient pharmacists.

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Adam sitting amongst ruins

The pharmaceutical-rich shelves of modern Western chemists and hospitals filled with sophisticated technologies, like CAT and MRI scanners, which focus on the minutiae of human anatomy and physiology, seem far removed from the home remedies and medicines of the past, the shamans and healing shrines, but are modern medical technologies really so different?

Do the contents of the shelves in our local chemist’s shop have nothing in common with the 230 medicines found listed in an ancient Assyrian pharmacy? Is a pacemaker trusted with regulating the heartbeat so different from a heart scarab worn by an ancient Egyptian? We may not believe that illness is a curse of malevolent spirits, but we continue to seek specialist advice to understand complex diseases. Remedies from the past are also being revisited today in order to discover new drugs. In addition, the placebo effect is still being studied. Here, the belief that something will help not only makes the patient feel better, but has measurable effects on the body. This may account for the longevity of remedies for which modern medicine can see no active ingredient.

Ancient medicine, particularly from Greece and Rome, has influenced many aspects of modern medicine. The notion of the body as made up of four humours seems to share much with Far Eastern and Indian medical systems (such as the Chinese Five Elements), but these parallels may be coincidental. The first human dissections took place in third-century BCE Alexandria, performed by the Greek doctors Herophilos and Erasistratos. But the practice was quickly abandoned and didn’t return until the late Middle Ages. The great doctor Galen, active in second-century CE Rome, never dissected a human body, but his anatomical texts went largely unchallenged until the sixteenth century, when Vesalius (1514-64) performed his own dissections and published his findings, highlighting Galen’s mistakes.

Surgical instruments, such as forceps, scalpels and rectal and vaginal specula, share startling similarities with their ancient Egyptian and Roman counterparts. Leisure and fitness centres, with swimming pool, sauna, massage and beauty treatment rooms, gyms and athletics facilities, have a great deal in common with the Greek gymnasia and, particularly, the Roman bathing complexes. The Greco-Roman interest in maintaining physical wellness, through regulating diet and exercise, is reflected in our enthusiasm for these centres as well as in our interest in healthy eating options and alternative therapies. Even a decline in patient confidence in doctors, which reflects both a shift from ‘doctor knows best’ and the strains on NHS funding, seems to echo Plautus’ Roman comedy satirising the lack of trust in a Greek doctor’s skills, written in the 3rd century BCE!

Modern anatomical terms are a hybrid of the Greek and Latin languages, passed down to us from Hippocrates and Galen, via the medieval Arab world to the Renaissance, and into current usage. So, ‘retina’ comes from the Latin réte (‘net’) because the Alexandrian Herophilos, when dissecting the eye, called one of its membranes ‘net-like’. Modern medical symbols, such as the snake-entwined staff, also have their origins in Greek medicine (the snake was the symbol of immortality, and associated with Aesculapius).

The legacy of the Hippocratic Oath is more complicated. It immortalises the ethical relationship of doctor to patient but, while elements such as confidentiality remain today, it has never been universally sworn by medical graduates. Indeed, its focus is more on the medical community, the training and mutual care of doctors, than on the patient.

So, whilst technological advances continue to be made in diagnostic methods and treatments, the legacy of ancient medicine remains with us in many areas of modern medicine.

Find out more about what we can learn from Ancient Greek medicine, watch this video:





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