Origins of Medicine: Western Medicine

Although the science that informs modern medicine is constantly evolving, many of the core principles that have guided physicians throughout their careers have remained unchanging since ancient times. One of the most famous examples of this is, of course, the Hippocratic Oath which binds physicians to certain ethical standards like patient confidentiality and non-maleficence. This oath has remained constant for more than two thousand years.

What Is Western Medicine?

Before we delve into its origins, it is important to define Western medicine. It may be referred to as mainstream, traditional, or allopathic medicine, but Western medicine is an evidence-based practice. That means that the therapies provided by Western medicine practitioners are recommended because they have been scientifically proven to be effective. This kind of medicine is primarily found in the United States and the western world, thus the name.

Scientific evidence comes in many forms with certain kinds more reliable than others. The two primary metrics of these scientific studies are quantity and quality. The more qualified subjects that can be included in the study, the more likely the results are to be trusted.

The hallmark of quality in a medical study is lack of bias. The most respected studies are typically randomized controlled studies in which researcher bias is kept to a minimum.

Greek Medicine

Most ancient cultures based their medicine upon superstitions typically related to religious beliefs, but the ancient Greeks were strong proponents of rationalism. The practice of observing the natural world to derive principles and mechanisms helped the Greeks develop the first form of evidence-based medicine.

Although many of the medical theories that the Greeks relied on were flawed, many of the methodologies they pioneered remain in use today. Foremost among these is carefully diagnosing the condition before embarking on a course of treatment. Hippocrates, the formulator of the Hippocratic oath, strongly endorsed diagnosing a condition accurately.

The ancient Greeks innovated many of the medical techniques and concepts still in use today. Aristotle is considered the founder of anatomy and embryology, while Plato was the first to use the term “anesthesia.” In later years, Erasistratus pioneered the field of physiology.

Greek medicine was so venerated that the Romans left it largely untouched despite their many advances in so many other scientific fields. Notably, the Roman Galen did compile Greek beliefs on bodily humours and published them along with his anatomical studies. Galen’s medical texts were considered the foremost medical authority for more than 1,000 years despite many glaring errors.

Medicine in the Dark Ages

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, there was little scientific investigation as the Catholic Church prohibited such activities. Most European doctors relied on medical knowledge preserved from the Classical Period, but there was some progress made by physicians in Arabian countries where Greek rationalist philosophies still fueled scientific inquiry.

Most of the medicine practiced by European physicians in the Dark Ages was based on herbal remedies, medical superstition and charlatanism of fraudulent apothecaries. However, by the year 1,000, classical medical texts were being rediscovered and by the 14th century, medicine was being taught in universities like Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris.

Advances during the Renaissance

In the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe, physicians were once again embracing rationalism and empirical analysis that paved the way for important improvements in the practice of medicine. Among the most notable was Andreas Vesalius’ refutation of much of Galen’s inaccurate teachings. Vesalius published his own anatomical compendium “On the Fabric of the Human Body” correcting many of Galen’s errors.

During the 15th century, various pioneers advanced medicine by introducing invaluable new concepts. Girolamo Fracastoro was the first to recognize that the “love disease” was actually an illness known as syphilis. Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus was the first physician to argue that every disease required its own specific treatment. Paracelsus also pioneered the use of chemicals like mercury and laudanum in medicine.

In the 16th century Ambroise Pare improved the practice of surgery by opposing the use of cauterization to seal wounds.

Key Breakthroughs in Recent Years

In the 17th century, William Harvey discovered that the heart circulates blood throughout the body. Anton van Leeuwenhoek used the newly invented microscope to reveal that cells were fundamental to human biology.

In the 19th century, Louis Pasteur showed that diseases were caused by bacteria which quickly led to immunization.

During the last century, critical technological discoveries like x-ray, electrocardiograph and ultrasound enabled physicians to peer into the human body to discern ongoing processes. Another revolutionary discovery was that of antibiotics that could kill disease-causing bacteria.

The 21st century has also witnessed some impressive medical achievements that promise to extend and improve the quality of life of many people. Advances in stem cell technology are now allowing medical researchers to create organs like livers, bones and even brain tissue.

Among the most intriguing and potentially powerful medical breakthroughs has been the invention of functional MRI. While magnetic resonance imaging has been available for quite some time, functional MRI offers unprecedented granularity which can reveal how blood circulates, oxygen is distributed, and the brain operates.

New Technologies Combined with Ancient Principles

The future of medicine promises to be exciting as new innovations in medical technologies, therapeutic techniques and scientific knowledge become available. Emerging medical advances could reshape how medicine is practiced in the coming years.

For example, nanomedicine which uses groundbreaking materials and microscopic devices could make medical monitoring available 24 hours a day. This could eliminate the need for diagnostic visits as your physician could instantaneously and remotely determine the cause of your health condition.

Although the technical improvements in medicine are very exciting, without a firm grounding in the ethical principles that have guided medical practitioners for millennia, many of these advances could be potentially harmful to patients and society.

Without the strict safeguards on patient privacy set forth in the Hippocratic oath and other professional standards, much of the data gleaned from cutting edge technologies could be used to financially or socially injure the patient.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA, and you should not post any of your private health information.