An Overview of

The History of Medicine in the World

When history looks back, we see that medicine, in all its dimensions, is the union of cultures, scientific and empirical experiments, religiousness andm, above all, human values. We need to build on these strengths at a time when borders no longer limit populations to one single place, facilitating the mixing and spread of diseases, but also enabling the interaction of knowledge and making it easier to evolve, because nowadays resources abound.
Hippocrates saw Medicine as a supreme form of art, because it required the knowledge and ability to improve the human body.

The anatomic studies by Leonardo Da Vinci (who was not a doctor) or the descriptions of Vesalius prepared the ground for the X-ray and the most modern techniques of observation. As Hippocrates depicted it, during the Renaissance period anatomists and artists came together to map the inside of the human body.

There was a period of 175 years filled with discoveries from 1838, when the cell was discovered, to 1972, when the first genome sequence was decoded. This goes to show that the human being has constantly searched for the elixir of life.

Clara Pinto Correia, a Portuguese scientist, stated in an interview for the magazine Visão in 2017 that Western culture fell in love with the idea of Medicine being able to erradicate disease and decline. However, history has shown us that all civilisations, over time, seek the same power, but each one uses different scientific, empirical, social and cultural resources to achieve it.

Although Medical Science (Medicine) was not founded by the Greek physician Hippocrates in the 4th and 5th centuries, he was the one who systematised it, laying the foundations that served as its basis for more than 2000 yearss.

Based on the Hippocratic medicine, another area evolved over the two thousand years, Naturopathy, based on the definition “Vis Medicatrix Naturae”, where the articulating concept is formed by the body (physis) in harmony with nature(naturae), having the intrinsic power to heal(vis curativa). Without neglecting its universal diimension, Hippocratic medicine advocated that the individual nature of each human being , explained from the combination of the four humours, has the ability to self-regenerate.

In China, medicine is applied in many other ways that date back to more than 5,300 years. According to recent scientific evidence, the highlight of Traditional Chinese Medicine is acupuncture and herbal medicine, and has been one of the most disseminated forms of medicine over the centuries.

India has given us Ayurvedic Medicine, AYU meaning “life” and VEDA standing for “knowledge or science”.  Ayurveda originated with the Vedas, the oldest literature in the world, where any knowledge that could be useful to society was recorded: engineering, physics, astrology, biology, toxicology, theology, social, cultural and ancestral rituals, and rituals with nature. The oldest civilisation that we know so far is that of Harappa, which appeared around 3,000 years b.C., and whose culture spread across the Indus Valley for around 1,500 years.

In Central America, Indigenous Medicine uses all of nature’s resources: plants (herbs) and clay (earth minerals) have the power to heal and treat, associated with religiousness (Christianity) and prayer (ancestral indigenous beliefs). The first Centre of Indigenous Medicine of Amazonia was created in 2017, called Barserikowi’i., a project that brings together scientific and indigenous knowledge..

Traditional Medicine of West Africa has been quite underestimated over time by science. Today, centuries after ignoring the African healing techniques, researchers from all over the world have begun to acknowledge the efficacy of treatments therein. By mixing biomedical methods, diets and fasts, therapeutic herbs, baths, massages and minor surgical procedures, African medical knowledge is the one preferred by its inhabitants. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 80% of the population in the African continent relies on traditional medicine.

The same is true for Australia, New Zealand, the peoples of the Artic and Antartic, where adaptations and improvements were introduced to lifestyles so as to fight diseases and climate changes over the evolution cycles of species.

Medical practices and experiences are passed down from generation to generation, including diagnostic procedures, medicine resources, preparation of prescriptions, administration of medicines and, above all, adequate theoretical, practical and spiritual training, regardless of the region where it takes place.

In East Africa, the Arabs brought scientific progress of the golden age of Islam to the Iberian Peninsula, where listening to the patients’ complaints was part of clinical wisdom. The physician Al-Zahraawi developed the first concept of surgery and the surgical thread. This specialist left a legacy of more than 300 written pages describing the surgical procedures and treatments that followed the Hippocratic principles, one of which was the draining of body fluids.

In Portugal, the physician and scientist Garcia da Orta was the first to show that Scientific Medicine and Herbal Medicine could coexist and be used to treat patients. In 1563, he published his work in Goa (Colóquios dos Simples e Drogas e Cousas da Índía), translated to Latin by the botanist Charles de L’ Écluse,  where Luís Vaz de Camões added a preface to this work in the form of a poem:

Orta, as “Sung by Camões”

Look kindly on that obscure

knowledge that once Achilles valued;

take care that you favor

the green shoots today displayed

as fruits of that Orta, where new

plants flourish even experts don’t know;

take care that before many years

pass, some famous Orta produces

in Portuguese meadows

all the various herbs Medea and Circe,

those arrogant witches, never smelt,

despite breaking the rules of the occult,

and regard an ancient, lettered

man, burdened by years

and vast experience, instructed

by the muses of the River Ganges,

in the subtle Asclepian rustic

skills of Achilles’ master’s magic

the very same that here petitions

your patronage for the mighty tome

even now being published

that will give medicine a new flame

and will make its way revealing facts

that to the ancients were veiled secrets.

Source of the text, Revista Visão História, Medicina cinco mil anos de avanços, March 2017 (in The Collected Lyric Poems of LUÍS DE CAMÕES, translated by Landeg White)

The implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN’s Agenda for 2015-2030 presupposes an unprecendented sharing of efforts on a global scale among all countries and public and private agents, one in which the governments and citizens from all over the world must work together to create a new global model to eradicate poverty, promote prosperity and the wellbeing of all, protect the environment and fight against climate changes..

The “World Health Organisation” (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing that is not simply defined or demarcated by the absence of disease”.

The idea of health has changed over time. Today, it makes no sense to talk about static and formal health.

We now know that wellbeing and health are the result of dynamic, social and socioeconomic actions as Man’s response and as the conditions in which he lives.

This response must be addressed under three aspects or dimensions: physical health, mental health and social health. This is the pillar upheld by Epigenetics.

Paula Mouta