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What Is the History of Western Medicine?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 08 December 2016
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The history of Western medicine is believed to have begun with the ancient Greeks, particularly Hippocrates, who is considered the father of Western medicine. Hippocrates, along with the Roman physician Galen, had profound influence on Western medicine. Western ideas about health and medicine have evolved from the notion that black magic caused illness to a science-based understanding of good health and modern medical practices.

The Roman physician Dioscorides published what is widely considered the first medical treatise, De Materia Medica, a text which remained widely used among European physicians for about 1,500 years. The Roman physician Galen is also considered one of the most influential early doctors. He believed that illnesses were caused by imbalances in the body's four humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. Galen's beliefs would dominate Western medicine until about the mid-19th century.

The germ theory of illness and other modern medical ideas began to appear in the late 19th century. The late 19th century and 20th century saw important medical advancements, including the widespread use of vaccines, the invention of effective antibiotics. It was also during this time that practices returned to the principles of hygiene espoused by the Romans.

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Prior to the advent of Greek medical philosophy, it's believed that many people thought diseases were the result of black magic or immoral behavior. The Greeks and Romans advanced the idea that illness was caused by external factors. Greek physician Hippocrates is credited with naming and describing a number of illnesses and herbal remedies.

The Roman physician Galen is credited with concocting some of the first pharmaceuticals, and with being one of the first surgeons. Historians believe the Romans understood the importance of good hygiene to health, and that it was for this reason that they erected public baths and installed a plumbing infrastructure throughout the kingdom. The Romans may have also established some of the first hospitals in Europe.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the practice of medicine is believed to have fallen largely under the control of the Catholic Church. Catholic physicians practicing from the fifth to the 13th centuries are believed to have relied on prayer and faith healing. The Crusades are credited with re-introducing Romanesque medical ideas to Europe, since these wars brought Europeans into contact with the more scientifically advanced Arab culture. The 13th and 14th centuries in Europe are believed to be a time when medical universities and apothecaries flourished on the continent. It is believed that Europeans made a full return to the ideas of Galen and Hippocrates during the time of the Renaissance.

The late 18th century is believed to have ushered in further changes to Western medicine. Near the end of the century, an English physician named Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine, which protected against smallpox. During this era, however, Galen's practices of bloodletting, enemas, and administering drugs to induce vomiting or sweating became increasingly popular, though it's now believed that these techniques were ineffective and may have killed many patients.

The latter half of the 19th century saw a decrease in these practices, and introduced many ideas still considered to be true by practitioners of Western medicine today. Louis Pasteur proved his theory that germs cause disease. Personal hygiene and, by extension, health began to improve, largely encouraged by government sanitation projects. The widespread use of vaccines to prevent illnesses such as diptheria and the plague began. Nursing became a recognized medical profession, and many physicians began espousing the health virtues of fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and a healthy diet.

The 20th century saw the development of penicillin, safe, effective pain relievers, and safe, effective blood transfusions, as well as startling advances in medical equipment. Today, doctors have a wide range of tools at their disposal, allowing an historically unprecedented standard of medical care.

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