From earlier times, efforts to understand how the body is constructed and how it works go hand in hand with attempts to comprehend and treat ill health. Whether by probing human anatomy or by charting physiological processes, investigators have provided insights, not only into normality, but also into the abnormality that we call disease. Here, we dig into the history of scientific medicine that laid its foundation in Greece in early historic times.
The origins of scientific medicine
Knowledge of anatomy, physiology and pathology as we now understand began to emerge through the Greeks. They were the first to recognize the distinction between internal and external causes of illness, which become a vital strand in the emergence of scientific medicine. Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC) was a blend of a scientist and an artist, who examined his patients with empathy and rationality.
He believed disease occurred when four humors: blood from the heart, yellow bile from the liver, black bile from the spleen and phlegm from the brain – became unbalanced. Although long discredited, this theory was important in combining a picture of the body as a machine, subject to adjustment when it malfunctioned, with the awareness that the whole person was much more than the sum of the individual parts, and should be treated accordingly. In this, Hippocratic medicine paralleled the even older Chinese tradition which was founded on the complementary principles of yin (female principle) and yang (male), the correct proportions of which were essential for health. The oath which Hippocrates took along with other physicians is still relevant and is in use today.
The authorities of medieval medicine
Although more often remembered for his erroneous ideas about the physical world, Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a prime figure in the history of Greek medicine. By dissecting small animals and describing their internal anatomy, he laid the foundations for the later scrutiny of the human body. Herophilos (335–280 BC) was the foremost person to support Aristotle’s inference by dissecting the human body to explain the nervous system. The person who took the next major step was Galen of Pergamon (129 – 199 AD), who dissected rhesus monkeys and possibly also itemized tendons and muscles, classified bones, and even revealed the working of the nervous system by severing a pig’s spinal cord at different points and demonstrating that corresponding parts of the body became paralyzed. He performed many daring operations including on the eye and brain which were not tried for almost two millennia after that. After Galen’s death, however anatomical research ceased and his work was considered infallible for 1200 years.
It was only with the work of Andreas Vesalius (1514 – 1564) that Galen’s ideas were challenged. Vesalius became professor of anatomy and surgery at Padua immediately after graduating in 1537 and began a lifetime of scrupulous dissection of human body. In his De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the Human Body), he illustrated not just what bodily parts looked like, but how they worked.
Thus, began the influence – From ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers, to scientists and Muslim philosophers along with the European Enlightenment and Renaissance to the secular science of the modern day.
By Deepti Verma
Image Source: By manuscript:Unknown scan used in book: Foto Biblioteca Vaticana scan from book: User:Rmrfstar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Attributed to Jan van Calcar (circa 1499–1546/1550) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons