Drastic advances in science have caused past medical practices to become not only antiquated, but often shocking. Although brilliant medical insights are peppered throughout history, many dated practices are more curious than insightful. From an early take on chemical warfare to human dissections, the following shortened excerpt from A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities includes short facts and quotes on some of the most famous doctors from the Ancient World.
Though he is regarded as the founder of the Western medical tradition, Hippocrates is an extremely shadowy figure. About seventy treatises are attributed to him but, since there are numerous significant contradictions between one treatise and another, they cannot all have been written by the same person. It is in fact quite probable that Hippocrates himself wrote none of them. With this proviso, it is conventional to refer to him as the author of them all.
Few ancient Greek texts have been as influential in the Western cultural tradition as the so-called Hippocratic Oath. It is included in the Hippocratic corpus, but there is little evidence that it was actually used much in antiquity. The first certain reference to it is not earlier than the first century AD, in the preface to Scribonius Largus’s Prescriptions:
A doctor, being bound by the sacred oath of the medical profession, will not give a harmful drug even to his country’s enemies, for all that he will attack those same enemies in his capacity as a soldier and a good citizen.
Even in Hippocrates’s own family, there would seem to have been no scruples about using drugs in warfare. His son Thessalus appealed to the Athenians to help his homeland of Cos in return for the benefits that their army, afflicted with an infectious disease while conducting a siege, had once received from his ancestor Nebros, “who was universally regarded as the greatest Greek doctor of his time”:
The arrival of Nebros in the Athenian camp delighted the god Apollo, who had caused the plague. The soldiers stopped dying and by a divine chance the commander’s horse, while rolling in the dust, struck its hoof against the underground pipe through which water was led inside the city wall. Nebros poisoned the water with drugs, and this destroyed the defenders’ entrails and contributed significantly to the taking of the city (Pseudo- Hippocrates, The Embassy Speech).
Herophilus and Erasistratus
Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos are the physicians most closely associated with medical studies in Alexandria in the first half of the third century BC, in the brief period when human dissection was practiced freely:
When someone asked Herophilus for a definition of the perfect doctor, he replied, “The one who is capable of distinguishing between what is possible and what is impossible” (Stobaeus, Anthology).
Herophilus, that famous doctor (or should I say butcher?), cut up hundreds and hundreds of people so as to pry into nature, and he put aside human feelings for the sake of gaining knowledge. But I doubt whether his investigations of the internal organs were really clear, given that the process of dying changes living organisms, especially when the manner of death is not straightforward, but rather such as to cause distortions during the dissection (Tertullian, On the Soul).
It is fairly certain that Dioscorides wrote his highly influential Medical Material in the middle of the first century AD. Manuscripts of the work report his name as Pedanius Dioscorides Anazarbeus. From this we learn that he came from the obscure Cilician town of Anazarbus (now in eastern Turkey) and that he may have owed his Roman citizenship to the patronage of the powerful Pedanii family. The most prominent Pedanius at this period was Lucius Pedanius Secundus who, while serving as Prefect of Rome, was murdered by one of his slaves for making homosexual advances to him. By senatorial decree in response to the murder, all four hundred of his household slaves, including women and children, were put to death. It is remarkable to suppose that this Pedanius might well have been the patron of the author of one of antiquity’s greatest medical texts.
Though well over half of his known works are lost, Galen is by far the most voluminous author to survive from classical antiquity. That is not to say, however, that he altogether deserves the reputation for verbosity he has had imposed on him. Usually, his instinct for ensuring clarity requires him to write at length. There are, however, quite a few exceptions. He devotes several pages at the beginning of The Function of the Parts of the Body to establishing that it is not physically possible for Centaurs to exist or function efficiently: the human front half would require different food from the horse back half, and just imagine a Centaur climbing a ladder or rowing a boat or writing a book, and so on and on. But since this passage seems to be a rare instance of Galen attempting humor, perhaps we should be grateful to have it.
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