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Babylon to Birmingham

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Babylon to Birmingham

A short journey through medicine to the end of the 18th Century

Marion Roberts

That the intelligent man desires health above all else is both a platitude and a fundamental truth. The fact that we seek health implies the fact of disease.

The Roman School put forth the idea of a Golden Age, healthy happy and wise. Science coldly brushes this aside, announcing that germs are as old as earthly life itself and that bacteria can be traced right back to the Carboniferous Period, some 16 million years ago and there is evidence to show that disease was a factor before man appeared. Bone tumours have been found in animal fossil bones and micrococcus and diplococcus types of bacteria have been discovered in coal deposits in the Carboniferous Period.

When we come to prehistoric man, though, it becomes somewhat more difficult. Pathological evidence is scanty and is limited to bone changes. Actual prehistoric medicine was practically non-existent although evidence exists of trephining of the skull (in Neolithic times), spondylitis deformans, a painful stiffening of the spine, tuberculosis of the spine, fractures, great evidence of arthritic afflictions and dental caries.

It is hard to believe that prehistoric man made no attempt to deal with these conditions. If early man was intelligent enough to fashion tools and weapons, it is not unreasonable to argue that he would devise or discover some methods of dealing with disease.

Natural phenomena would first come to mind: thunder, lightning, storm - magical forces, to be harnessed and used by the medicine man or priest. Witchcraft, against the evil spirits whose name is Legion, to be used alongside "domestic" remedies which did not require the specialist's attention: herbal poultices for wounds, bleeding for headaches, leeches for local pain, vapour baths for rheumatism, chants and amulets tied onto the patient and lotions for the skin.

If there is one fact that stands out more clearly than any other throughout the history of medicine, it is that magic and superstition are inevitably associated with it in all civilizations and in all ages, with a few brief centuries standing out: the 4th and 5th of the Greeks. The 1st BC and 1st AD of the Romans and our own from the 18th century.

The Sumerians of Babylon were skilled in their knowledge and exploitation of desert herbs: frankincense, myrrh, balm of Gilead, laudenam and many others and this knowledge must have been at the disposal of the highly cultured men of Ur, Kish and Akkad, that seat of the most wealthy and cultured dynasty.

In the Indus Valley, hygienic ideas of an astonishingly high level have been discovered - bathrooms with waterproofed brick floors, latrines in private homes, socketted drain pipes to carry sewage away to holding tanks, when in England at this time, Bronze Age people were living in mud huts.

Their physicians dealt with diseases of the head, mouth, nose, eyes, ears, stomach and digestive system, with ulcers, poisons, swellings, the condition of the urine and with childbirth. Their medicine declared it was "necessary to confuse and disgust the demon". For "demon" read "microbe", so a genuine remedy was compounded to that effect: turpentine with a green frog, sesame with doves dung, cherry with antimony, even powdered old shoes! more>

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