The History of Medicine and the Influence of Religion

Today, we see medicine as a science and doctors are, for the most part, highly trained, often going to school for many years to earn their degree. However, since the beginning of time, humans have sought to understand and practice medicine.

While medicine is basically a timeless practice, the doctor of the past often based their treatments more on superstition or appealing to the gods, than on actual science. In this regard, most of the early healers were more of "witch doctors" or diviners, than actually doctors. Subsequently, many of the first treatments relied more on dances or prayers than actual medicine, with this practice continuing for some time.

Perhaps one of the most well known early doctors was the shaman. Shamans were very common in the Americas and Siberia, where they used their knowledge of magic and ritual to fight disease. Often, special jewelry or charms were used to ward off infection, with shamans serving as not only a doctor, but also a religious leader.

The Beginning of the Separatio Religion and Medicine

As humans began to move away from a nomadic existence and began to settle, medicine quickly became a very important part of the culture. Common practices for fighting illnesses were developed and for the first time, they were written down and documented, rather than being passed down from one generation to the next. Often, the role of physician and religious icon would remain intermeshed though. For instance, it was common for the liver of religiously sacrificed animals to be inspected.

Over time, however, there began a move towards a more specialized physician, with the role of spiritual leader, seer, and physician becoming differentiated. Typically, seers and spiritual leaders relied upon incantations or exorcisms.

Some of the earliest physicians were members of the Egyptian Culture, where they treated the pharaohs for disease. While the Egyptians were one of the first to begin to begin to separate religion from medicine, it would be the Greeks who would have the biggest impact on Modern Medicine.

The Greeks Influence on Medicine

For many years, the Greeks primarily focused on the Gods, placing their faith in the God of Disease and the God of Health. However, during the fifth century, a number of Greek physicians began to reject this idea.

These doctors, dubbed the Hippocratic Doctors, followed the lead of Hippocrates, whose teaching lead to the creation of more than 60 different works. The works, which are called the Hippocratic corpus, attempted to explain health and disease as being a result of the internal fluids of the body.

The fluids, or humours, the the Hippocrates Corpus focused on were blood, choler, phlegm, and black bile. Blood was thought to bring vitality, while choler was used for digestion. Phlegm was considered a lubricant and cooling aid for the body, with black bile thought of as the reason that blood or stool turned a darker color than normal. Black Bile was never separated by it self though, and was only seen as an additive to one of the other humours.

With this new focus, the different fluids were used to describe the relationship between a healthy body and a sick one. The blood was considered to be responsible for keeping the body hot, while phlegm helped the body stay cold. Parallels were even drawn between the humours and other elements, such as comparing blood to air.

Since each of the identified fluids were different in color, the humours were also used to describe why some people were white and others black, or why some were pale and others swarthy. The homours were also thought to be responsible for the shape of a person's body, as well as their overall attitude and personality.

In addition to helping explain genetics, the early Greek Physicians also felt that illness was the result of a poor balance of homours. For instance, too much blood could cause fever, while not enough meant poor vitality.

Perhaps to an extent, an argument could be made for this today, in that an iron blood deficiency can indeed affect vitality, but it is in no way as simple as was believed by Hippocrates or his followers.

While today, much of what was discovered by Hippocrates and those who continued his work has been found to not be true, the effects of Hippocrates on creating a separation between church and medicine was revolutionary. One of the biggest impacts was in the development of the Hippocratic Oath, which is a statement still used today to describe the role of a doctor in healing and helping, while also protecting them from legal ramifications.

Medicine During the Roman Empire

Another person who had a very big impact on medicine was Galen, who was the emperor of medicine during the Roman Empire. Where Hippocrates lead a rather shy existence, Galen was fueled by his ego and wealth. He was the son of a very wealthy architect, who had a dream that his son would be a great man in medicine and Galen did not disappoint.

One of the main reasons that Galen had such a big impact on medicine was that he was such a prolific writer. He made an incredible effort to document his work, so much so that it would dominate the practice of medicine for hundreds of years. His argument was that doctors should not only be skilled in medicine, but also in philosophy. A key part of Galen's ideas were that the patient should feel comfortable with the doctor.

Galen was also responsible for many of the early anatomy and spent a great deal of time dissecting animals. He made some headway on the development of nerves, but because human dissection was frowned upon, he did not do much work regarding human anatomy.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Even though Hippocrates and others saw the importance of separating ritual and prayer from medical practices, this divide would take thousands of years and even today, it is not always complete. For instance, during the Roman Empire, Christianity and Medicine again became intertwined, with many religious leaders leading an assault against what they classified as "pagan medicine."

A popular saying during this time by Christians was "Ubi tre physici, due athei," which means if you have three doctors, two will be atheists. The religions quickly gave each organ of the body and most diseases its own saint.

The practice of twisting religion together with medicine continued into the Dark Ages, when most of those with any learning had moved away, so consistently, monks were the only ones with any sort of higher education. As a result, most medicine was practiced by Monks during the dark ages.

Today, we often see a much stronger divide between religion and medicine, but there are still some cultures that have been slow to make this change. For the most part, however, in Western Countries, even doctors who are religious are able to see the importance of medicine over prayer, which is a huge change in the scheme of things.

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