An Unfinished Path: Medical Development from Ancient to Modern Times

Medical development throughout time has resembled a path, sometimes working straight ahead, and other times taking drastic turns in the wrong direction. Whether little advancement or substantial medical advancement is recognized in a particular region, the ultimate truth of the matter is that medicine is a revolutionary and influential component of everyday life. Beginning in ancient times, medicine has consistently proven to be an essential part of any thriving society.Although modern medicine is significantly more advanced than ancient Greece and medieval medical England treatment, there is still a vast amount of progress necessary in bettering the modern African medical world.

Some of the contributing factors that caused the development in the medical field over time include: the acknowledgement of more disease, the philosophy of the time period, and the amount of knowledge and resources available in a particular area. With the acknowledgement of more diseases, more research and more perspective can be put into creating treatment and diagnosis for illnesses. Developing medicine and treatment techniques cannot even begin to happen without a general understanding and distinction between diseases. This ultimately shows the importance of acknowledging the existence of more diseases. Due to this, more diseases have been recognized over the time periods, with some modern diseases persisting even from ancient times.

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With the creation of more technology and the continuous research and money spent, illnesses that have been around for centuries hope to be less of an issue throughout the world today. Despite this, there are many similarities between issues surrounding disease in ancient and medieval times to modern society. Research proves the parallelism between diseases noted in ancient Greece to common diseases in modern Africa. For one, proof from excavated skeletal remains of the time period shows that diseases of the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece include smallpox, typhus, malaria, tuberculosis, cancers, and leprosy (Adkins). Over time, little has changed regarding these specific illnesses, as places in modern Africa still suffer from these diseases. Some of the most widespread issues regarding disease, both in ancient Greece and modern Africa, include tuberculosis and malaria.

Tuberculosis is infectious, and is caused by abnormal swellings of cells in tissues of the body, particularly the lungs. Tuberculosis is classified as a bacterial disease. Malaria, on the other hand, is a fever of fluctuating body temperatures that are caused by a protozoan parasite. The parasite invades red blood cells of a victim’s body, and is transmitted by mosquitoes. Both tuberculosis and malaria are incredibly dangerous, even fatal, diseases that are still quite prominent in modern Africa (‘Top 10 Diseases in Africa’).

The connection of these issues to ancient societies is linked to places such as ancient Greece, where malaria and tuberculosis were just a few of many widespread diseases of primary concern. As previously discussed, malaria is one disease associated with places such as Africa in modern times. Similarly, people in ancient Greece suffered from the same disease, mainly transmitted by mosquitoes. Today, malaria is a very serious disease in many countries and continents outside of the United States, including Africa. Malaria is the leading cause of death of children under five years of age in many countries, and the disease unfortunately kills one African child every 30 seconds.

The statistics speak for themselves, and through scientific development in the field of medicine, the widespread issue of malaria in modern Africa will hopefully decline in threat. As of now, Africa holds 85% of malaria cases throughout the world, and an even greater number of 90% of deaths caused by malaria worldwide (‘Our Africa – Health’). This growing issue in Africa can be seen as an epidemic, due to its widespread and infectious nature, connecting back to terrible epidemics in medieval England and ancient Greece. Unfortunately, medical epidemics and plagues still persist in the modern era. Disease is inevitable, but with the proper care and treatment, it can be controlled. However, it is not this simple.

Whether its the amount of resources available in a particular environment, the cost of living standards, genetics, or lack of knowledge and research, plagues and epidemics are still a concerning aspect of life, especially in less advanced areas like modern Africa. The connections between now and moments in distant history can help modern scientists better understand issues today and prevent future disastrous circumstances. Understanding diseases throughout time like the Plague of Athens in ancient Greece, the Black Death in medieval England, and even the Ebola Virus in modern Africa are all important to advancing in the field of medicine and learning from past horrors and mistakes. The modern world is far from perfect, which is why it is so beneficial to learn about medicine from diseases of the past. One epidemic that sparked terror in people of the time period is the Plague of Athens in ancient Greece. The Plague of Athens, a well known epidemic that lasted from 430 – 436 BC, was thought to be a disease similar to smallpox.

Today, it is not considered a true “plague,” as the ancient definition of the word is different from today’s perspective on the subject. The ancient term defines a plague as, “…any major epidemic of infectious disease.” (Adkins 424).

From this viewpoint of the tragedy, an ancient Athenian historian and philosopher named Thucydides expressed his own personal viewpoint of the Plague of Athens. Thucydides described the epidemic as a disease affecting the entire body, with victims exhibiting symptoms including vomiting, convulsions, blisters, ulcers of the bowels, diarrhea, and even death. Those who managed to survive were often left with permanent physical disabilities such as the loss of fingers, toes, and sometimes even genitals. Bodies of dying men were everywhere, making the epidemic in Athens truly horrifying. Thucydides recorded what was happening at the time, so later generations could read firsthand what had happened and attempt to figure out the cause. Modern scientists believe the plague arrived on ships from North Africa.

Thucydides described the pain by saying, “‘Men were seized first with intense heat of the head, and redness and inflammation of the eyes… both the throat and the tongue immediately became blood-red and exhaled an unnatural and fetid breath'” (‘The Plague of Athens’). Not only did Thucydides write about how the plague looked from the outside, but he discussed possible causes and statistics of what the Plague of Athens had put so many people through. About one third of the population was said to have died from the plague. At the time, no one knew what the cause of the killer plague was, but there were several theories. Some believed that the plague only affected those whose bodies were not healthy. Others argued that both unhealthy and healthy were victims of the tragic plague, and came to the conclusion that one’s health was an irrelevant factor.

To summarize the impact of the Plague of Athens, a quote from Thucydides once again brings to light the fear and confusion the epidemic brought,”The character of the disease proved such that it baffled description, the violence of the attack being in each case too great for human nature to endure” (Thucydides 2.50). Overall, plagues and epidemics were an issue in ancient Greece, as well as medieval England. In addition to the great suffering the Plague of Athens brought about in ancient times, an epidemic known as the Black Death affected the people of medieval England to a vast extent. This proves once again that people from completely different time periods had to experience the hardships of the mass spread of disease.

The Black Death began in 1347, and spread in England in 1348 to 1349. Reported symptoms of the Black Death were flu-like vomiting and pus-filled swellings on the neck, armpit, and groin. Other symptoms were purple and black blotches on the skin, and death soon after the disease was developed. There were no remedies, causing about 35% of the population in central Europe to die due to the Black Death (‘BBC News: The Black Death’). Those who had the disease and were told they were most likely going to die, usually lived a maximum of three or four days after the disease developed.

Wealthy and poor people alike were almost equally susceptible to the terrible illness that took the lives of so many. An average of 20 to 60 or even more bodies were often sent to be buried in the same pit per day. The summative statement, “[A] Wretched, terrible, destructive year, the remnants of the people alone remain” (‘BBC News: The Black Death’) shows the crushing tragedy of the Black Death, whose effects closely resemble that of the Plague of Athens. To conclude, the modern Ebola Virus epidemic concentrated in Africa reflects current issues regarding disease and illness, and how ancient and medieval societies endured similar epidemic disasters. The Ebola Virus can enter through mucous membranes, skin breaks, infection in various types of cells, etc.

The virus moves from the first infection site to the lymph nodes to places like the adrenal gland and spleen. Those with this fatal disease develop signs early, and often die of bodily dysfunction between six and sixteen years of age. This is usually caused by septic shock or multi-organ failure (‘Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) Information for Clinicians in U.S. Healthcare Settings’). There are some cases of the virus that are nonfatal, and the infected will have a fever and then get better, but can need prolonged recuperation time.

Overall, the similarities regarding epidemics over time is uncanny, and despite more advancement in modern times in terms of extended scientific research and discovery, such epidemics still persist. The main difference between modern times and medieval and ancient means of treatment is the benefit of more knowledge and more experience that comes with a revolutionary time period. However, as shown by the issues surrounding the Ebola epidemic, the modern world must continue making changes to better medical situations. Clearly, as proved throughout such events in history, the acknowledgement of more disease is the first major factor in the development of medicine throughout history. Not only does this acknowledgement of more disease and their causes contribute to the continuous development of the medical field, but the philosophy of the time period is a momentous factor that has made the difference between ancient/ medieval civilizations and modern societies. Unsurprisingly, the development of scientific questioning and theories using rationality was not the first means of trying to understand the natural world.

Beginning back in ancient times, the main way of explaining general ideas involved taking a spiritual or religious spin on a given subject. Religion generally had a high impact on the treatment of disease. In the 5th century, in ancient Greece, Asclepius was considered the healing god. Healing sanctuaries created in the name of Asclepius were the main place where illnesses were diagnosed, treated, and remedies were prescribed (Adkins). These medical practices stemmed from philosophy to explain natural occurrences and how to treat specific illnesses.

For instance, religious healing shrines in ancient Greece used religion, magic, and rationality to study medicine and why disease happened. They used the short answer to explain wonders of the world: “This happens because God made it that way.” Doctors continued to use traditional methods for minor medical issues even after science started to be viewed as the more practical answer. Temple medicine in ancient Greece reflected the rationality of philosophers and the religious beliefs that affected the development of medicine and treatment processes. Illness treatment in temple medicine involved rituals, prayers, and sacrifices to the gods Asclepius and Apollo.

Buildings for the sick came to be known as asclepeia, named after Asclepius, the healing god. One of the largest of such temples was in the Greek city of Epidaurus, and people counted on God to visit them in their dreams and explain the cure to a particular disease. The dependence on religion and spiritual ideas remained in effect even after scientific medicine was established. Temples of healing Gods remained for years and were used frequently. Judging from the idea that it takes a long time for the majority to drastically change their entire outlook on a subject as complicated as medical treatment, it makes sense that religion and spirit continued to flourish in understanding medical treatment, even long after ancient times and into the medieval time period (Moulton). During the medieval time period, the main goal of most individuals was to achieve eternal salvation, fulfill one’s journey on Earth, and obey their obligations so they could enter Heaven.

This is because this is a dark part of history, which limited the drive to learn in aspects including science, therefore restricting the development of medicine for diseases of primary concern. That being said, there was immense superstition and religious beliefs surrounding medicine in medieval England. The spiritual aspect of medicine in medieval England dominated any true scientific development. Diseases were attempted to be cured by a practitioner or someone who practiced folk medicine rather than a scientific-based medical doctor. Many of these folk remedies were built upon superstition. For instance, the people of medieval England tried to cure the evil spirits of the head through a method of surgery known as trepanning.

Surgeons, during this process of trepanning, cut a hole into the skull to “let go” of evil spirits within the brain, sometimes even cutting out parts of the brain. Extraordinarily, skeletons from the time period discovered by modern scientists show that bone growth around these holes in the skull is present, showing that some people managed to survive these trepanning surgical operations, even though they likely displayed limitations after the incredibly risky surgery. In addition to trepanning, a medical procedure called blood letting was used to release “bad blood” from the body. In blood letting, blood was drained from a particular place in the body, often through the use of leeches or dirty knives, which only increased the unhygienic methods and risk to the person being treated (‘Health and Medicine in Medieval England’). In addition to the misunderstanding of proper medical procedures, many believed that taking a pilgrimage to show one’s faith and love of God at a holy shrine could cure any illness. This supposed cure revolved around the religious domination of medieval England and the common belief of the time period that disease resulted from sins.

Canterbury Cathedral became a popular place of pilgrimage, which brought an abundance of wealth to England during this time. However, more people coming into England risked more disease being carried in, which the medieval people were unaware of. Along the same lines, the Church played a significant role in medicine and cure of the sick at the time. Since many believed that sickness was a punishment for one’s sins, people tried to rid themselves of their illness by meditating, praying, taking pilgrimages, and generally showing their faith through dedicated religious acts. Infirmaries were run for members of the Church, and hospitals for the old and sick were for those who did not belong to the Church, but all were surrounded by religious beliefs and orders.

Some medieval theories blamed supernatural forces such as God or astrology for punishing the sins of mankind. In times of crisis, saints were turned to and tried to solve illnesses that medicine could not. Physicians believed that they were no match for the healing powers of the saints, the ones who could miraculously cure and heal in the eyes of the spiritual people (‘Health and Medicine in Medieval England’). All in all, it is evident the impact the time period of medieval England had on medical development, and the same is true in modern societies, such as Africa. Similar to the influence spiritual cures had on medical development, traditional African remedies continue to be frequently used to this day.

For instance, home remedies such as an ointment of coconut oil and and leaves used to take the itch out of chicken pox, a homemade lotion that is used for strained muscles, etc are modern uses of traditional medicine in Africa. African healers have been using these herbs and rituals as treatment for hundreds of years. Herbal remedies are commonly sold in local markets in regions throughout Africa, as people find them more affordable and have faith in such traditional remedies. Zimbabwe alone has about 45,000 healers through traditional means and just 1,400 scientific-based doctors (‘Our Africa – Health). These healers have vast knowledge about medicinal plants that also comes into use when looking for cures to diseases like HIV/AIDS, another pressing problem in Africa today. Traditional medicine continues to serve a significant and widespread purpose.

The spiritual and religious take on medicine throughout the time periods was undoubtedly widely influential. However, as time went on, issues arose between spirit and logic due to the debate between the rationality of philosophers and the practical nature of physicians. Even after the scientific method of rationality started to get more praise and viewed as more practical, similarities between this type of thinking of medicine and Asclepius temple healing methods came about, likely because of rational influence from temple priests. This shows how religion ultimately did play a large part in becoming the foundation for future medical development. Though the transition was somewhat slow, the scientific take on cures spread rapidly, and was eventually viewed as the more practical answer to medical advancement. Around the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece, doctors used scientific knowledge to help them understand medicine, which allowed for the discovery that disease could be treated using science.

After this, methods of medicine and curing of diseases came about with a basis of some scientific understanding. Some examples include the process of suturing, a way of joining flesh similar to stitching, that was used on large flesh injuries. Tools used for suturing included gold wire and animal tendon. Hippocrates, the most famous of the physicians in ancient Greece, began this revolutionary advancement of rational medicine practices. The Hippocratic Corpus was a collection of over sixty medical writing pieces about diseases and what the symptoms of them were using rational thought, and was attributed to Hippocrates. This allowed for advancements including the first documented chest surgeries (believed to be by Hippocrates) that allowed for the discovery of information still necessary and relevant in modern times.

Connections between Hippocrates’s work in ancient Greece and the work of Galen, a Greek physiologist are uncanny. Galen researched relevant information that became a foundation for medical development in medieval England. Galen proposed that the four humors of the body: yellow bile, phlegm, blood, and black bile were related to the four elements (in the order of fire, water, air, and Earth). Galen thought that sicknesses arose from an imbalance of these four humors, and that the humors had to be perfectly balanced to remain healthy and with a normal personality. Similar ideas were brought about by Hippocrates, who also declared that balance of the four humors was the key to health.

On the basis of these ideas, beginning in ancient Greece, physicians started prescribing regimes for treating minor illnesses, especially to wealthy people who could afford the medicine (Adkins). The Hippocratic Corpus gave instructions and steps for preparing to operate, diagnosis, treat wounds and fractures, and perform surgeries on the foundation of some scientific understanding. Physicians continued to spread Hippocrates’s ideas even years after he died, and his work was used to explain later plagues. For instance, the Hippocratic explanation for the Plague of Athens was that it was caused by an imbalance in body fluids, and people needed to eat better and exercise in order to avoid the plague. The most important ancient Greek medical contribution was the use of science to help understand and treat illnesses, a value still pertinent in modern times.

Overall, the ancient Greeks were known for their scientific development in regards to medical treatment of disease. According to a professional named Udo Obiechefu, a writer for the website “Global Health of Africa,” which was created to raise awareness of the problems with Africa’s health, traditional and modern methods of medicine should be working simultaneously, not against one another. He writes, “Despite the issues, there is room for traditional and modern methods to work together. Most ECOWAS nations are in the process of developing policies and regulations for traditional medical care. Instead of working against traditional methods, many healthcare systems are looking to work with traditional healers.

Given the lack of access of many West Africans to quality hospitals, it is important to take advantage of the medical solutions already in place” (Obiechefu). Ultimately, creating a mix of traditional and modern treatment styles can be beneficial in bettering the health of the modern world, especially in places like Africa. Doing so will expand the amount of knowledge and resources available, another key factor in the gradual development of the medical field. Modern times definitely have better medication and treatment options available through the development of technology and vast research that has been put towards finding sufficient treatments for prevalent diseases, even some that have been around since ancient times. Through countless hours devoted to research and progression of medicine, theories from ancient and medieval societies have been proved wrong and knowledge continues to grow through new discovery. Glimmers of hope persist through means of prevention and protection including inoculations and vaccinations that are available to fight disease.

One example is insecticide-infused nets, a prevention technique that exists to protect against fly bites that could potentially cause malaria (‘Our Heath – Africa’). Such examples exhibit the change that is trying to happen to improve medical development, but its just not enough advancement yet, as supported by the vast diseases and issues relevant in modern Africa. Despite the clear means of prevention continuously being researched, there are still deeper issues of illness and disease that persist in modern day, and the simple fact of the matter is proof in itself. Even with the prevention techniques and cures available in modern Africa, common illnesses including syphilis, meningitis, tetanus, pertussis, measles, tuberculosis, diarrhea, malaria, HIV/AIDS, respiratory tract infections, and so many more, remain a serious problem. Early diagnosis and cures are minimally available, causing some illnesses to be extremely dangerous or even fatal to the sufferer. Some diseases, if not properly treated, can prevent the victim from earning a living.

Also, the high cost of prevention methods/ treatment and the lack of access to health care clinics are contributing factors to the spread of disease in modern Africa. Relating to how the lack of knowledge and resources is a major factor influencing medical development is the limitations on evidence and proper medical care/ resources available in a particular area. In regards to lack of knowledge, analysis of ancient and medieval time periods proves this factor to be significant in furthering medical development. In ancient Greece, a lack of understanding caused scientists to assume that women were “reversed males” (Adkins), meaning that women were practically considered an entirely new species in Hippocratic medicine practices, and needed different treatments than men did. It was believed in ancient Greece that a woman’s womb traveled throughout the body and was to blame for issues such as respiratory problems. Fumigation was then used a treatment, only causing greater issues, showing how lack of knowledge was at fault for misunderstanding and improper medical treatment.

Similar circumstances are also evident in medieval England. In medieval England, there were limits to scientific analysis, which limited health. Instead of testing theories through observations, students and readers of theories were to interpret the authorities – not prove with science whether the ideas were right or wrong. This limit to science, and therefore medicine, was the absolute basis to the lack of understanding and knowledge throughout medieval England. For instance, the hygiene in monasteries was not atrocious, but also not as thorough as it should have been to stay healthy. People living in monasteries did not bathe often, but did have access to running water, so they were able to wash their hands, an advantage and clear advancement from ancient times.

People in medieval England also falsely believed that disease could be spread through bad odor. Another major disadvantage resulting in improper knowledge was that physicians had to attempt to cure and learn about diseases without much knowledge, as the microscope was not invented until the late 17th century that would allow for the discovery of the existence of microbes. The limitations of scientific development in medieval England limited medical advancement. Medieval monasteries had an issue with the cold, as there were few fires, a lack of resources related to the lack of availability of proper medical care in modern Africa. Unfortunately, inadequate supplies and equipment in hospitals and clinics of modern African countries remains a relevant issue. Basically, the lack of proper resources in places of Africa has prevented medical development from thriving and advancing.

For one, two thirds of women who have just given birth have no contact with a professional to assist them in this moment of weakness. This caused Africa to have over half of the entire world’s mother and child deaths following childbirth. A lack of resources does not only apply to women giving birth. Since about half of Africa today does not have essential drugs available, an estimated ten million lives could be saved if these drugs were provided (Our Health – Africa). This blaring estimate sends a clear message: lack of basic equipment and resources can mean the difference between life and death. Many African areas don’t even have access to clean water or sufficient sanitation facilities, resulting in poor hygiene illnesses like cholera and diarrhea.

If simple resources and medical luxuries were available to a wider population of people in modern Africa, millions of lives could be saved. To continue to advance and develop medicine as seen from ancient to modern time periods, the amount of knowledge and resources prove to be absolutely necessary, especially regarding the region of Africa. This proves how knowledge and resources can fuel medical development, and without the resources to do so, advancement will likely slow. All in all, aspects of medicine in modern Africa can be connected back to the rate of advancement in ancient Greece and medieval England. The development of medicine over time can be seen as an unpredictable path. The path from ancient Greek development crossed over with the medieval England path, which crossed over the path of medical advancement in modern Africa.

With the acknowledgment of more disease, the embracement/ understanding of the philosophy of the time period, and proper resources and knowledge, medical components in modern Africa can potentially improve, and treatment can keep advancing. By following the patterns of the ancient Greek and medieval English path to medical development based on these three components, the understanding of modern African medicine can expand rapidly. Its just a matter of taking a right turn to keep adding to the never ending, unfinished path of medical advancement.