History of Medicine: Origin, Timeline & Summary

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson briefly goes over some of the major concepts, turning points, and names associated with medicine. You'll learn how medicine originated and how it continued from there on until today.

What Is Medicine?

What is medicine? Your answer today may be quite different than that of our ancient ancestors. Today, we see medicine as the art, science, study, and practice of preserving one's health via drugs or surgery. Many moons ago, the definition of medicine would've been quite different, and it still is in some cultures across the world today.

The history of medicine is very long, and we'll briefly touch upon as many of its interesting details in this lesson as possible.


Where do we begin? Where and how did medicine even originate? There is no easy or direct answer to this. Our very early ancestors simply never left any written accounts or visuals about this topic (or none have survived). Thus, historians and scientists can at best guess at what happened all the way in the beginning.

It is suspected that, at first, early humans didn't think of diseases as anything other than something part of natural existence. There was no need to treat a disease as a result. This isn't a far stretch of a thought either. That's because not all that long ago native tribes far removed from Western civilization thought their diarrhea was perfectly normal, until Westerners told them it wasn't and it was due to parasites.

Later on, diseases may have been viewed as being supernatural in origin. In other words, someone cast a spell on you or you insulted a god and that is why you are sick.

But it also seems logical to suspect that as soon as Homo sapiens were able to reason, they must've experimented with nature in order to see how it could be of benefit to them. Things like vegetables, roots, herbs, berries and so on may have been simply tested by trial and error to see if they were (hopefully) beneficial in some way. This use of natural substances for healing constitutes the notion of folk medicine, which survives to this day. Magic, incantations, and witch doctors played their part in early 'medicine' as well.

With time, advancement in technology, and even more experimentation medicine evolved from a shrug of the shoulders and a fear of the gods to folk medicine and now medicine as it is seen today.

Summary & Timeline

The timeline for this is no easy discourse, but it can be summarized as something like this. First, we'll begin with the ancients.

In ancient Egypt, one of the most famous and first physicians arises. His name was Imhotep and he is considered by some to be the 'father' of medicine. The Egyptians developed medical texts about treating wounds and injuries among other things.

In ancient Babylon, it seemed that literally anyone and everyone could be a doctor. But trying to be one was risky. If you killed a patient while treating an abscess your hands could be cut off. So much for encouraging your kids to go to medical school, right?

Ancient Indian sacred writing called Vedas also laid out various practices for treating diseases, albeit with a heavy dose of magic and charms. The ancient Chinese also published medical texts, some revered to this day, like the Huangdi neijing, an important text on internal medicine.

The medical knowledge from ancient Egypt and Babylon, and perhaps even China and India, was brought to ancient Greece. Actually, Imhotep was later identified with the Greek god of medicine Asclepius, from which the proper symbol of medicine, the rod of Asclepius is derived. Ancient Greece also gave us another important physician, Hippocrates, for whom the Hippocratic Oath of medicine arises and someone who is commonly thought of the father of modern, especially Western, medicine.

The development of medicine in Ancient Greece marks an important turn in the history of medicine as the ancient Greeks shunned a lot of the magic of their predecessors and tried, instead, to use more reason to explain the natural world.

Ancient Rome continued the great Greek traditions, including learning about medicine. Actually, many Greek physicians flocked to the Roman Empire, most notably Galen, who was a great anatomist and physiologist of his time.

After the collapse of ancient Rome, medieval Europe relied on educated monks to preserve the ancient texts and to establish great hospitals for people. They also translated classical medical manuscripts into Latin and Arabic. Arabic scholars, including Jewish and Christian scholars in Arab lands, further preserved and expounded upon medicine in various treatises. The Arab scholars were also some of the first true experimental pharmacologists and pharmacists.

Thereafter, the period of Enlightenment brought about a new revolution in how medicine was studied. New ways of properly experimenting with anatomy and physiology and carefully measuring things with accuracy in medicine were brought forth by the likes of William Harvey and even Galileo.

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