Medical science

From the earliest times, disease and ill-health have plagued mankind. And from those early days, healing has been part of the human condition. True, many animals act instinctively to help heal or cure themselves – dogs and cats lick their wounds, for instance. Also, social animals, such as dolphins, gather to protect and aid one of their number who is sick or injured. But only human societies contain individuals who are expert in health matters.

A brief history of medicine

This article covers only the history of Western medicine. Other cultures, such as the Chinese, Indian and Arabic, have ancient and interesting histories of medicine. Thousands of years ago in India, bladder operations were carried out, and in China acupunc- ture, a very sophisticated method of curing and pain-killing, has been practised for centuries. These other histories of medicine would deserve an entire book, and we shall gloss over them here for practical purposes.

Hippocrates of Kos (born around 460BC) is known as the Father of Medicine. However, his influence on modern medicine lies not in any of his anatomical discoveries, but in his rational and holistic approach to healing, which emphasized the importance of the relationship between doctor, patient and disease. This approach was revolutionary at a time when disease was thought to be an unavoidable visitation by the Gods, and when cures were thought of as being equally mystical. He said: ‘The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but must also make the patient, the attendants, and externals (forces of nature) co-operate.’ Even today we celebrate his achievements by the Hippocratic Oath, which all doctors have to take. From the time of Hippocrates medical science progressed only slowly, and indeed halted altogether after Galen. This Greek physician, born in AD129, possessed a knowledge of anatomy that was considered so definitive it remained unchallenged for the next 1,000 years. The advent of Christianity did little to improve medical progress, with its insistence that illness was a punishment for sins by God, and by making it forbidden to dissect the human body for scientific purposes.

From the sixteenth century onwards, the Renaissance period, with its more humanistic philosophy, enanled man’s understanding of his body to grow. An important early medical achievement was English physician William Harvey’s (1578-1657) discovery of the circulation of the blood. This for the first time showed the importance of integrating anatomy and physiology in any medical investigation. The Fleming Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) contributed enormously to anatomical knowledge, and the Dutchman Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) using a microscope discovered the existence of sperm and also egg cell development in the female ovary. Throughout the last century the pace of change in medical knowledge has accelerated. Important landmarks are the discovery of cellular pathology by Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), and the discovery of the link between bacteria and illness by Louis Pasteur (1822-1895). Diagnosis became more efficient with the development of X-ray photography in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen (1845-1923). Discovery of the arsenic derivative Salvarsan by Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) brought a cure for syphilis, until then untreatable. In 1928 Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) discovered penicillin, which became available in a useable form for treatment of bacterial diseases around the time of World War II. Vaccination against many infectious disorders were developed; hormones became available for the treatment of goitre and diabetes and the development of the contraceptive pill has, some people would say, changed society itself.