What Is Medicine? Medical history covers a vast segment, if not the whole, of man's existence. Contrary to this acknowledged fact, historians persist in dating "reliable" medicine no earlier than Hippocrates! The REASON for this is significant!
The year 500 B.C., is the edge of a precipice in history. Beyond this date lies a vast abyss of human experience heavily charged with the odious phenomenon of supernatural intervention. Within this abyss, medicine was an art! The modern explanation is that since 500 B.C., it is a SCIENCE! Such a sudden transformation would be a miracle in itself! Yet, this hypothesis has been generally accepted — and readily so.
The truth of history is that THERE HAS BEEN NO SUCH TRANSFORMATION! The practice of medicine (i.e., the use of and dependence on chemotherapy and surgery to treat the sick) has remained consistent from its origin! One reason this has not been easily recognized is that the consistency of medicine lies in its inconsistency. Eras APPEAR to come and go; major transformations APPEAR to have occurred.
Notice the comment of one historian: "The development of [this] science has never been continuous, nor even progressive, but rather like a tangled, tortuous line..." (Garrison, History of Medicine, p. 45).
The history of medicine is a history of human fallibility and error — based on a supernatural foundation. The practice of medicine basically has never changed — only the APPROACH to medicine has suffered a traumatic transformation!
An Art or a Science? At times in history medicine has enjoyed respect and honor. At other times, as the dregs of degradation, it was considered but a grisly extension of witchcraft by its contemporaries!
Of recent date, medicine has even received distinction as a science. In fact, since 1935 — the time of the acceptance of the antibiotic — medicine has been referred to exclusively as a science. Since the practice of medicine is closely associated with, and currently employs many actual sciences such as chemistry, physics, physiology, etc., it is generally assumed that medicine is also a legitimate science.
However, medicine is not a true science, but an ART!
Notice this comment!
Medicine is not only a science; it is also AN ART. Science is primarily analytic, art primarily synthetic. And medicine is likely to remain AN ART, however hard we may try to make it more and more scientific.... For medicine deals not with impersonal atoms, elements... but with humans.... In practice he [the physician] deals not with disordered metabolisms, specific infections... but with sick human individuals. Even the effect of digitalis, or antibiotics, will partially depend on the human relationship between the doctor and his patient, not to speak of treatment of the "psychosomatic" diseases that will usually form from 50 to 70 per cent of the doctor's practice. Science, so far, has contributed little to this aspect of the doctor's work (Ackerknecht, A Short History of Medicine, p. XVI). Certainly, the practice of medicine is associated with numerous sciences, and has for its province the treatment of disease, but this does not insure its role as a specific science. Even the word "medicine" or, in the Latin, medicina (from the Latin mederi, to heal) actually means the ART OF HEALING! Once again, the religiously-oriented foundation of medicine is interjected as healing has traditionally been the prerogative of the supernatural. Even a historian of renown as Herodotus, writing centuries nearer its origin, describes this practice as "the art of medicine" (Herodotus, The History of the Greek and Persian Wars, ii, p. 84).
Most medical historians are doctors, and consequently take a subjective view of the subject. It is their desire to be rated on a par with the sciences — not just a fellow traveler. This causes them to disclaim their heritage and not allow "modern" medicine to be subjected to association with its ancient counterpart! Throughout history, medicine has unquestionably been an art, which was dependent upon the supernatural. Such a relationship in any facet of life is odious to our society. We pride ourselves on emancipation from superstition. Therefore, every effort has been made to discredit the ancient supernatural origin of medicine, and to assume an empiric beginning of recent date: the Age of Hippocrates. Whether recognized or not, this is the reason Hippocrates was chosen the Father of Medicine! Hippocrates, should he know of the appellation, would be quite surprised indeed!
Nevertheless, the age of Hippocrates has become a milestone to the medical historian because it was then among the ancient Greeks that the first complete separation of religion and medicine took place. It was they who first sought to remove the supernatural from medicine and make it solely dependent upon observation and human reason. THIS STEP HAS BEEN REGARDED AS THE MOST IMPORTANT OCCURRENCE IN THE LONG HISTORY OF MEDICINE!
However, it was a step that was not maintained, for although the Greeks treated medicine as an empirical practice, it was not held at this level! One is led to believe that from the Golden Age of Greece, medicine has continued onward and upward. But such is not the case! After the decline of Greece, medicine returned to the realm of mysticism, "from which only after the lapse of centuries was it rescued... and finally nurtured into the medicine of today..." (Haggard, H.W., Mystery, Magic, and Medicine, p. 29).
Break With The Supernatural To properly understand the history of medicine — what it originally was, as well as what it is today — it is necessary to understand the break with the ancient world and the supernatural. Actually it is not so much a definite break with the spirit world as a continual effort to wrench away!
Originally, from the days of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the practice of medicine was supernaturally sponsored. Medicine was exclusively in the hands of the priests! "... the priests were the sole possessors of physico-medical knowledge.... It was necessary before gaining mastery over the powers of nature to become initiated into the mysteries...." Once duly initiated, the priest "was able to practice medicine" (Magnus, Superstition In Medicine, pp. 9-11).
This had been the strict regime of medical practice for over 1500 years! Yet, Hippocrates, apparently, sought to change it! WHY? This question has never been fully answered!
"It has never been fully explained why all of a sudden, more than twenty-five hundred years ago, a small group of people in the Eastern Mediterranean took this important and radical step in human thought" (Ackerknecht, A Short History of Medicine, p. 42).
What Provoked Such a Radical Departure? The departure from the old ways was revolutionary, but it did not occur overnight. "The change in opinion was rather wrought by a gradual recession from the idea that the gods interfered with the proper course of man's bodily functions" (Magnus, Superstition In Medicine, p. 16). Although initiated about the fifth century B.C., the overthrow of the ancient period is not considered complete until about the sixth century A.D. It was during this period of time that an amazing revolution, (possibly begun by Hippocrates) took place.
The understanding of this important period bridges the gap between our age based on the physical, the empirical, and the ancient world, which relied on the intervention of the supernatural! History teaches that the methods used to treat the ill did not change! Only the APPROACH to medical practice was altered. "This great discovery was not itself a cure or a means of preventing disease; it was merely a new way of studying disease." In brief it was a NEW "PHILOSOPHY" (Haggard, The Doctor in History, p. 59). The empirical approach is so vastly different from the supernatural that man has deceived himself into believing the system and the principles underlying the two practices are also at equal extremes.
By 500 B.C., the practice of medicine under the ancient system had deteriorated seriously! "The decadence of the arts and sciences was accompanied by a deterioration of medicine also" (Castiglioni, A History of Medicine, p. 62). Wars, political upheavals, natural catastrophes, and other traumatic events had taken their toll. Medicine had openly become the tool of charlatans, a superstitious farce!
It is within this hopeless environment, just prior to Hippocrates, "we find the various branches of medicine engrossed chiefly by the priests, among whom a spirit of rivalry started up.... Thus these temples became progressively converted into schools of medicine, varying in excellence, as they did in reputation, exhibiting instances of successful practice, or the reverse...." (Hamilton, The History of Medicine, Surgery and Anatomy, p. 41-42).
During this period fewer and fewer cures were reported. When unsuccessful at one temple-hospital, the ill were forced to seek cure at another. And the age-old method continued to falter until Greece realized something was wrong — the system they had inherited was failing!
"Thus the foundation was laid for that great revolution in medicine... which, by detaching medicine from the science of theology, emancipated it by degrees from... superstition" (ibid., p. 42).
Man's Approach to Life Changes! Suddenly man realized he was lost! For centuries man had depended on the authority of the supernatural to guide him. It had now become obvious to many that whatever contact the ancients had had with the spirits was rapidly vanishing. No longer did the priests command daily contact with the supernatural.
Having relied on such a relationship for centuries, the absence of it left mankind hopelessly adrift. No one knew where to turn. It is to this era of desperation that we owe the dawn of philosophy.
Questions often asked by the Sophists of the fifth century B.C., amply demonstrate how totally lost and confused they were. The apex of intellectual curiosity reached at that time only enabled them to ask feebly: "Is truth really attainable? Was there a first cause of things?" (Selwyn-Brown, The Physician Throughout The Ages, p. 46). After 3500 years of human history, this is the helpless state in which man found himself! This pitiful condition is often misinterpreted to be genius, when it is nothing more than IGNORANCE and DESPERATION!
The Greeks faced a dilemma — the result of which would be the medical heritage of ages to come. They had inherited an approach to medicine, which was now failing to work. Hippocrates never lost faith in the efficacy of drugs and surgery. But he did lose faith in dependence on the supernatural to guide him in the use of medicine — as the mysteries taught the ancients to do.
Hippocrates simply resorted to the only alternative, which remained. Stripped of supernatural intervention, it became necessary to depend solely on the principle of careful observation guided by human intuition. So, "all the knowledge that physicians have gained of disease since the time of Hippocrates has been acquired by following the principle he laid down — careful observation" (Haggard, The Doctor in History, p. 67).
The belief in this new approach to life gained prominence until it eventually dominated Europe by the sixth century, A.D. Its popularity was to alternately rise and wane during the next twelve to fourteen centuries, but it was definitely here to stay. Today, of course, solely the empirical method is acceptable.
Medicine Remains the Same The age of Hippocrates was a beginning, not the beginning! It is unrealistic to look to this ancient Greek as the originator of medicine. Historians wrongly assert that the Greeks discovered the art of thinking, founded our civilization, art, science, and medicine (see Selwyn-Brown, The Physician Throughout The Ages, pp. 46, 68).
However, a definite break with the past did occur between 500 B.C., and A.D. 500 — beginning with the Age of Hippocrates! This was a strange, but a general phenomenon, affecting the approach to all facets of life. In regard to medicine, supernatural intervention and authority were discarded in favor of observation as weighed by human reason.
Contrary to opinion, this did not change the actual practice of medicine! Physicians continued to fervently believe in the use of basic medical procedures: MEDICATIONS and SURGERY. The notable alternative was the deletion of meaningless mysticism, which had developed between 1500-500 B.C. As we will see, medical practice was more nearly reverting to the type of practice originally developed. Even the Greeks soon realized that empty incantations have no effect on disease. The newly independent field of medicine found it necessary to supply its own philosophy: Empiricism.
In spite of the efforts of medical historians to trace the commencement of modern medicine to a more recent "scientific" origin, this ancient practice was a fundamental ART developed in the Old Kingdom of Egypt; it was still an art in the time of Hippocrates and it remains basically the same art today — not a true science! Over this vast expanse of time, only the approach to medicine has changed.