The Earliest Medicine

The story of medicine opens with a struggle - both for survival and for understanding of a world that seemed, to its first human inhabitants, to operate by the whim of powerful forces.

So, for millennia, humanity practised primitive preventive medicine - for this was all it could do - by appeasing the gods through ritual and sacrifice.

Gradually, a body of knowledge built up, based on chance observation and trial and error. To people who believed that disease was caused by evil spirits, was it not logical to drill the skull of a person suffering from a blinding headache, in order to release them?

Unconcerned that this might also relieve intra-cranial pressure, they were simply content the procedure sometimes worked.

And slowly, in measured steps over thousands of years, the body of medical information acquired more flesh, as civilization gathered pace.

First, the ancient Egyptians mixed magic spells with psychotherapy, while using animal fat and dung as their drugs of choice; then Hammurabi of Babylon codified medical practice, primitive and brutal though it was; next, Judaic law laid down dietary and hygienic proscriptions.

But the first, tentative attempts to treat medicine as a science developed at more or less the same time in Greece, India and China. Doctors - for we may now call them so - were often wrong, but their approach to the body and disease was based on logic, each in their own tradition.

It was a golden age, soon to be torn apart by the fall of Rome, by barbarian hordes, and by the destruction of the great storehouse of ancient learning in Alexandria: in short, the Dark Ages of medicine.

As the shadow of superstition fell once more on Europe, the beam of knowledge was kept alight in the Muslim world of the Middle East. Long-forgotten truths returned, embellished, to Europe as the Moors occupied Spain and the Crusaders fought for the Holy Land.

But this reawakening was cruelly shattered as the medieval world was torn apart by the Black Death.

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