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Ancient Medicine


One of the best books I have read on ancient medicine is Science and Secrets of Early Medicine by Jurgen Thorwald. It covers the civilizations of Egypt, Babylonia, India, China , Mexico and Peru and it gives a well-balanced look at the ancient world's practice of medicine.

I will put a few quotes here from the work and then move on to articles that have been found on the internet. The page numbers follow each quote:

--"An anonymous Sumerian physician, who lived toward the end of the third millennium BC, decided to collect and record, for his colleagues and students, his more valuable medical prescriptions.  He prepared a tablet of moist clay…sharpened a reed stylus…and wrote down, in the cuneiform script of his day, more than a dozen of his favorite remedies. This clay document, the oldest medical 'handbook' known to man, lay buried in the Nippur ruins for more than four thousand years'" (pg. 107)

--"It turned out that the doctors of a nation, whose artists had been able to re[present the female body  with such accuracy…had also dealt knowledgeably with the weaknesses and afflictions of that body. They described hemorrhages, menstrual irregularities, tumours, inflammations of various abdominal organs and of the breasts, and displacements of the womb…" (pg. 99)

--"Father Bernardino de Sahagun, who drew up a definitive account of the Aztec Empire, noted that in addition to priests, soothsayers and magicians, there were genuine apothecaries and physicians among the Aztecs. To some extent the specialization of the doctors is reminiscent of Ancient Egypt. In particular, there were specialists in the treatment of wounds. They sewed edges of wounds with human hair, set fractures and applied splints. In case o fbroken bones which would not heal, they inserted splintersof wood of a certain type of stone pine into the bones. With small obsidian knives they opened abscesses of the tonsils… " (pg. 269-70)

--"Texts scratched on bones of the Shang period…show that the Shang priests in the second millennium BC, devoted great care to identifying symptoms and diseases. There are references to various complaints of the head, to maladies of the eyes, the teeth, the organs of the throat, the nose, legs, digestive system, kidneys and bladder. Above all there are mentions of infectious diseases and epidemics" (pg. 234)

--{Hammurabi's law} "If a physician has healed a man's eye of a severe wound by employing a bronze instrument, or has opened the spot in a man's eye with a bronze instrument and so healed the man's eye, he is to be paid 10 shekel for his work. (pg.124)

#1. http://explorable.com/ancient-medicine

Due to the hot and dry climate in Egypt, ancient papyri have survived intact, allowing historians to study the sophisticated techniques employed by Ancient Egyptian physicians. Whilst couched in magic and ritual, the Egyptians possessed a great deal of knowledge of healing herbs and repairing physical injuries, amongst the normal population and the workers responsible for building the great monuments of that nation.

Cropped version of image of a prosthetic toe from ancient Egypt, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Cropped version of image of a prosthetic toe from ancient Egypt, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (Released from Copyright)

Modern research has shown that these builders were not slaves but highly respected and well-treated freemen, and the care and treatment given for injuries and afflictions was centuries ahead of its time. Early paid retirement, in case of injury, and sick leave were some of the farsighted policies adopted by Ancient Egyptian medicine, luxuries that would rarely be enjoyed by most workers until well into the 20th Century.

The Egyptians made sure that the laborers were fed a diet rich in radish, garlic and onion, which modern researchers have found to be extremely rich in Raphanin, Allicin and Allistatin. These powerful natural antibiotics would certainly help to prevent outbreaks of disease in the often-crowded conditions of the workcamps.

#2. http://www.ancient.eu.com/medicine/


The oldest Babylonian texts on medicine date back to the Old Babylonian period in the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. The most extensive Babylonian medical text, however, is the Diagnostic Handbook written by the physician Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa, during the reign of the Babylonian king Adad-apla-iddina (1069- 1046 BC). Along with contemporary ancient Egyptian medicine, the Babylonians introduced the concepts of diagnosis, prognosis, physical examination, and medical prescriptions.

In addition, the Diagnostic Handbook introduced the methods of therapy and etiology and the use of empiricism, logic and rationality in diagnosis, prognosis and therapy. The text contains a list of medical symptoms and often detailed empirical observations along with logical rules used in combining observed symptoms on the body of a patient with its diagnosis and prognosis.


The Atharvaveda, a sacred text of Hinduism dating from the Early Iron Age, is the first Indian text dealing with medicine, like the medicine of the Ancient Near East based on concepts of the exorcism of demons and magic. The Atharvaveda also contain prescriptions of herbs for various ailments. The use of herbs to treat ailments would later form a large part of Ayurveda.

In the first millennium BCE, there emerges in post-Vedic India the traditional medicine system known as Ayurveda, meaning the "complete knowledge for long life". Its two most famous texts belong to the schools of Charaka, born c. 600 BCE, and Sushruta, born 600 BCE. The earliest foundations of Ayurveda were built on a synthesis of traditional herbal practices together with a massive addition of theoretical conceptualizations, new nosologies and new therapies dating from about 400 BCE onwards, and coming out of the communities of thinkers who included the Buddha and others.

#3. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/medicine-in-the-ancient-world/

Surgical techniques in the ancient world could be surprisingly advanced. The famous Roman physician Galen (c. 129–199 A.D.), who was born in the city of Pergamum near the Asklepion, is generally regarded as the most accomplished medical researcher of the Roman world, and some of his surgical procedures would not be seen again until modern times. He successfully conducted cataract surgeries by inserting a needle behind the lens of the eye in order to remove the cataract, and his described methods of preparing a clean operating theater reveal a keen awareness of contagion.1 While some of Galen’s practices and theories are still followed and praised by physicians today, others, such as his rejection of the stomach wall as having no role in digestion, have been proven by modern science to be erroneous…

Archaeology has further illuminated medical practices in the ancient world. Certain skeletons discovered during excavations demonstrate evidence of rather astonishing surgical successes. Perhaps the most startling evidence of sophisticated ancient surgery can be found in skulls that show signs of trepanation, a procedure still used today that is performed by drilling a hole into the skull to relieve intracranial pressure. Trepanated skulls from ancient societies in Central and South America, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Near and Middle East have been found that perhaps date back as far as the Mesolithic period, about 12,000 years ago.2 By examining the bone regrowth around the surgical hole in the skull, scientists are able to determine how long the patient survived after undergoing the procedure. Some patients died immediately, some lived only a few weeks, but others seem to have healed completely…

Excavations have also revealed evidence of sophisticated dental practices in antiquity. In a mass grave at Horvat en Ziq in the northern Negev desert of Israel, a skull dating to about 200 B.C. was found that contains one of the earliest known dental fillings. A 2.5-millimeter bronze wire had been inserted into the tooth’s canal.**** Elsewhere, skulls recovered from the catacombs in Rome, which were in use during the first through the fifth centuries A.D., exhibit some rather pricey dental work: Several were recovered that have gold fillings.

#4. http://library.thinkquest.org/C004203/science/science04.htm

When one is down with a flu, one can easily walk over to a clinic nearby for a checkup and obtain some medicine for flu. This medicine can come in many forms, such as in syrup and in tablets. Ever wondered what medicine in the past was like then?"

It was discovered that the ancient Egyptians were among the first to use certain herbs and drugs as a form of medicine. They also knew how to set and splint fractured bones, using skills that were so advanced and even rather similar to the way many doctors treat their patients today. More surprisingly, there is evidence that some surgery was also practiced in ancient Egypt. However, during that time, there was no knowledge of the use of aesthesia and the method used to render a patient unconscious was to strike him on the head with a mallet! Imagine how dangerous that was! (How many patients that blow could have killed!)

Surgery was also said to have been practised by the Babylonians of Mesopotamia, though the techniques used were more advanced than the Egyptians'. There was even a collection of laws set up and compiled in "The Code of Hammurabi" in about 1800 BC, which listed the penalties that had to be paid by unsuccessful surgeons. For instance, if the patient lost an eye because of faulty surgery, the surgeon had to pull out his own eye too! It's definitely a wonder how some of the Babylonians still dared to practice medicine given such strict laws!

#5. http://www.indiana.edu/~ancmed/meso.htm

Mesopotamian Medicine: The Sources

Most of the information available to modern scholars comes from cuneiform tablets. There are no useful pictorial representations that have survived in ancient Mesopotamian art, nor has a significant amount of skeletal material yet been analyzed. Unfortunately, while an abundance of cuneiform tablets have survived from ancient Mesopotamia, relatively few are concerned with medical issues. Many of the tablets that do mention medical practices have survived from the library of Asshurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria. The library of Asshurbanipal was housed in the king's palace at Nineveh, and when the palace was burned by invaders, around 20,000 clay tablets were baked (and thereby preserved) by the great fire. In the early 1920's, the 660 medical tablets from the library of Asshurbanipal were published by Cambell Thompson. Other medical texts have been published more recently. For example, Franz Kocher has published a series of volumes called Die Babylonishch-Assyrische Medizin. The first four of these contain 420 tablets found from sites other than Assurbanipal's library, including the library of a medical practitioner (an asipu) from Neo-Assyrian Assur, as well as Middle Assyrian and Middle Babylonian texts. The remaining two volumes of Kocher's work augment Campbell Thompson, providing new joins of broken fragments and much material uncovered in the British Museum. At least one more volume of Nineveh texts has been announced. In addition, the series Spaet Babylonische Texte aus Uruk contains some 30 medical texts not included in Kocher's work. The vast majority of these tablets are prescriptions, but there are a few series of tablets that contained entries that were directly related to one another, and these have been labeled "treatises." The largest surviving such medical treatise from ancient Mesopotamia is known as "Treatise of Medical Diagnosis and Prognoses." The text of this treatise consists of 40 tablets collected and studied by the French scholar R. Labat. Although the oldest surviving copy of this treatise dates to around 1600 BCE, the information contained in the text is an amalgamation of several centuries of Mesopotamian medical knowledge. The diagnostic treatise is organized in head to toe order with separate subsections covering convulsive disorders, gynecology and pediatrics. It is unfortunate that the antiquated translations available at present to the non-specialist make ancient Mesopotamian medical texts sound like excerpts from a sorceror's handbook. In fact, as recent research is showing, the descriptions of diseases contained in the diagnostic treatise demonstrate a keen ability to observe and are usually astute. Virtually all expected diseases can be found described in parts of the diagnostic treatise, when those parts are fully preserved, as they are for neurology, fevers, worms and flukes, VD and skin lesions. The medical texts are, moreover, essentially rational, and some of the treatments, as for example those designed for excessive bleeding (where all the plants mentioned can be easily identified), are essentially the same as modern treatments for the same condition.

#6. http://classics.mit.edu/Hippocrates/ancimed.html

Part One

Whoever having undertaken to speak or write on Medicine, have first laid down for themselves some hypothesis to their argument, such as hot, or cold, or moist, or dry, or whatever else they choose (thus reducing their subject within a narrow compass, and supposing only one or two original causes of diseases or of death among mankind), are all clearly mistaken in much that they say; and this is the more reprehensible as relating to an art which all men avail themselves of on the most important occasions, and the good operators and practitioners in which they hold in especial honor. For there are practitioners, some bad and some far otherwise, which, if there had been no such thing as Medicine, and if nothing had been investigated or found out in it, would not have been the case, but all would have been equally unskilled and ignorant of it, and everything concerning the sick would have been directed by chance. But now it is not so; for, as in all the other arts, those who practise them differ much from one another in dexterity and knowledge, so is it in like manner with Medicine. Wherefore I have not thought that it stood in need of an empty hypothesis, like those subjects which are occult and dubious, in attempting to handle which it is necessary to use some hypothesis; as, for example, with regard to things above us and things below the earth; if any one should treat of these and undertake to declare how they are constituted, the reader or hearer could not find out, whether what is delivered be true or false; for there is nothing which can be referred to in order to discover the truth.

Part Two

But all these requisites belong of old to Medicine, and an origin and way have been found out, by which many and elegant discoveries have been made, during a length of time, and others will yet be found out, if a person possessed of the proper ability, and knowing those discoveries which have been made, should proceed from them to prosecute his investigations. But whoever, rejecting and despising all these, attempts to pursue another course and form of inquiry, and says he has discovered anything, is deceived himself and deceives others, for the thing is impossible. And for what reason it is impossible, I will now endeavor to explain, by stating and showing what the art really is. From this it will be manifest that discoveries cannot possibly be made in any other way. And most especially, it appears to me, that whoever treats of this art should treat of things which are familiar to the common people. For of nothing else will such a one have to inquire or treat, but of the diseases under which the common people have labored, which diseases and the causes of their origin and departure, their increase and decline, illiterate persons cannot easily find out themselves, but still it is easy for them to understand these things when discovered and expounded by others. For it is nothing more than that every one is put in mind of what had occurred to himself. But whoever does not reach the capacity of the illiterate vulgar and fails to make them listen to him, misses his mark. Wherefore, then, there is no necessity for any hypothesis.

#7. http://citizenscientistsleague.com/2012/04/14/ancient-egyptian-dentistry/

“The earliest evidence of ancient dentistry we have is an amazingly detailed dental work on a mummy from ancient Egypt that archaeologists have dated to 2000 BCE. The work shows intricate gold work around the teeth. This mummy was found with two donor teeth that had holes drilled into them. Wires were strung through the holes and then around the neighboring teeth.” Source: metalonmetal blog.

I’m not quite convinced that this is the “earliest evidence” of ancient dentistry. I think there are some written texts that go back even further than 2000 BCE. Also, in the spirit of full disclosure I also have not located the site where this was found. Still, This is a fascinating item. The close-up below comes from the site dentalassistant.net.

#8. http://www.thedentalclinic.com/dental-expert/dentistry-through-the-ages.html

The roots of dentistry extend back many millennia across the globe. Evidence from the Indus Valley Civilization in Pakistan reveals dentistry being practiced as early as 7,000 BC, with practitioners using bow drills to cure tooth ailments. By contrast, a Sumerian text from 5,000 BC cites teeth worms as the source of dental decay. Evidence of this belief has also been found in ancient China, India, Japan and Egypt, in the writings of Homer, and as late as 1300 AD in the writings of surgeon Guy to Chauliac.

2,600 BC marked the death of Hesy-Re, the Egyptian scribe who has been called the first "dentist". Remains of some ancient Egyptians and Greco-Romans also reveal early attempts at dental prosthetics and surgery, and it is believed that Egyptians practiced oral surgery from as early as 2,500 BC. Later, between 1,700 and 1,550, the Egyptian text Edwin Smith Papyrus makes references to various tooth maladies and remedies. In the 18th century BC, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi makes two references to dental extraction as a form of punishment.

Early tooth replacement took place in Phoenicia, now Lebanon, as missing teeth were replaced with animal teeth and bound in place using cord.

Between 500 and 300 BC, both Hippocrates and Aristotle wrote about dentistry, including the eruption patterns of teeth, treating teeth decay and gum disease, extracting teeth using forceps, and using wires to stabilize loose teeth and fractured jaws. However, the Etruscans, in what is now Northern and Central Italy, were the first to truly perform restorative dentistry, with everything from dental bridges to partial dentures of gold appearing in Etruscan tombs, dating to 500 BC. The Romans later captured the Etruscans and adopted elements of their culture. Thus, dentistry became a Roman practice as well. Around 100 BC, Roman writer Cornelius Celcus wrote extensively about oral hygiene, stabilising loose teeth, and treating various dental ailments.

In the Eastern world, there is evidence in China of the use of silver amalgam as fillings as early as 200 BC. Oral medicine was also commonplace in early Japan and India. Dental surgery, however, was not practiced in many Islamic countries, because of the Qur'an proscription against mutilations of the body. As a result, preventative dentistry became particularly important in these areas. Writings of Arabic physicians such as Avicenna and Abū al-Qāsim, demonstrate the importance of the cleaning of teeth.

#9. http://www.bda.org/museum/the-story-of-dentistry/ancient-modern/ancient-dentistry.aspx

The torment of toothache is surely something we all have in common with our ancestors. Interestingly, those living in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome may not have had as many cavities as modern societies due to the lack of sugar and processed food. However, their teeth were worn down by their coarse diet, which required much chewing. In Egypt, archaeologists have discovered sand in preserved food and this must have exacerbated the problem. Natural teeth were valued if an article in the Roman Law of the Twelve Tables, c 450BC, is to be believed. It states: 'Whoever shall cause the tooth of a free man to be knocked out shall pay a fine of three hundred as'.

The Romans are well known for their cleanliness and this may have extended to their teeth with Celsus (c 25BC–c 50AD) recommending that city dwellers should wash their mouths out in the morning. Ancient recipes for toothpaste survive with ingredients such as bones, egg shells, pumice and myrrh although there is no mention of toothbrushes. The Greeks used mint, still a famililar ingredient in toothpaste for us today.

It was during the Roman period that toothache sufferers gained their own patron saint. Apollonia was the daughter of a magistrate in Alexandria who stood up for her Christian faith. Dionysius says 'a mob... broke her teeth and threatened to burn her alive'. As she was being consumed by the fire she called out that those who suffered from toothache and invoked her name would be relieved of their suffering.

Early cures for toothache may seem strange to us. The Ancient Egyptians wore amulets whilst the Roman writer Pliny recommended finding a frog by moonlight and asking it to take away your toothache. A further cure, according to Scribonius Largus, doctor to the Emperor Claudius in the first century involved 'fumigations made with the seeds of the hyoscyamus scattered on burning charcoal…followed by rinsings of the mouth with hot water, in this way... small worms are expelled'. The belief that cavities are caused by toothworms is a long standing one, held by the Ancient Egyptians right up to the 17th century. If these cures seem bizarre, we should remember some similarities – a mouthrinse for the tongue in Ancient Egypt contained honey, just the same as our cure for a sore throat.

References to dentists appear in Ancient Egyptian papyri and in a couple of tombs but what they did, if anything, is not clear: they could just have been honorary titles. In the Roman empire, extractions were undertaken by physicians. They used crude forceps, and dentures were made from ivory, bone or boxwood! Getting a good fit must have been a problem as Horace (c 65 BC–c 8BC) describes two witches running so fast that one of their denture's fell out. The Romans' predecessors in northern Italy, the Etruscans, made beautiful bridges of ox bone with gold wire, the quality of which was not to be seen again for well over a millenium.

#10 http://www.1800dentist.com/ancient-dentistry/

9,000 Year Old Dentistry in Pakistan

The land that forms modern day Pakistan has been home to a plethora of ancient cultures including the advanced, Indus Valley Civilization. One researcher team examined skulls excavated from a graveyard in the country's Baluchistan region. Carbon dating revealed those bones to over 9,000 years old and a closer study revealed that 11 skulls had nearly perfectly drilled dental holes in their teeth. This discovery has indicated that the art of dentistry is actually 4,000 years older than previously estimated.

According to reports, the reason for the drilled holes are unknown, but the fact that it was not just for decoration is clear as some of the teeth were hard to reach molars. One of the holes was one-seventh of an inch (3.5 millimeters) deep, which is quite unfathomable for a time when sedation dentistry was not an option.

Greeks, the First Orthodontists

During the reign of the Greek Empire, Hippocrates and Aristotle were known as having some of the biggest brains out there. Hippocrates was an ancient physician (known for being the force behind the Hippocratic Oath still upheld in the medical community today) and Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath. Together, the two often discussed malocclusion and how gentle force could be applied to gradually shift teeth. Those chats and their early experimentation helped pave the wave for today's field of orthodontics.

The two produced some of the earliest writing about dentistry and explored topics including the pattern in which teeth erupted and gum disease. Rumor has it the two also performed work on teeth impacted by tooth decay, tooth extractions and used wires to stabilize teeth and jawbones.

European Barber/Dentist

Facial hair is a favorite male accessory, but the need for soldiers to be clean shaven (as decreed by Alexander the Great) helped launch barbers as a major profession. With each new generation of leaders, barbers evolved to deliver the hottest trend and they were completely content with everything hair until the clergy (the medical experts of the 1100 century) needed their help with bloodletting (the cure for all ails of the time period). Only after the clergy were banned from drawing blood at the council of Tours in 1163, did the burden fall onto barbers. Eventually, they also became the folks responsible for implementing dental care (http://www.barberpole.com/artof.htm).

For hundreds of years, barbers provided those in need with tooth extractions to stop pain and remove teeth that had chronic infections. That changed when patients complained that the barber delivered dental treatments were making them sick and British Parliament officially severed the alliance between the barbers and surgeons in June, 1745.