Herodotus, who visited Egypt at a late, decadent epoch of its History, was full of praise about its medical organization.  He observes that the country is full of doctors:

“[each] treats one species of illness only […]  There are many of them in every place, some treating eyes, others heads, others again teeth, abdomens, internal ills.”

There is a whole medical hierarchy with “grand doctors”, “inspectors of doctors”, “directors of doctors”.  Some are affected to the army, others to workers.  All have received a medical education dispensed in the “House of Life”, which is more a library than a school.  Scribes, educated people endlessly re-copy medical texts, judged to be even wiser if they are very ancient.  This insistence largely contributes to the fixed character of this Medicine, which is, however, elaborate and scholarly.

It is therefore striking to note that, in this civilization which had pushed the techniques of mummification to a point of extreme sophistication, the doctors had fairly limited anatomical knowledge.  It is true that embalment was not the domain of doctors, as it was reserved for the very particular, closed embalmers’ corporation.  About one hundred words were used to describe the different parts of the body, and if the term metou could indistinctively designate muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, arteries and veins, certain parts of the body had a right to more descriptive details, such as the head or the genital organs.  Very weak in the pathology of the digestive apparatus, Egyptian Medicine redeemed itself in ocular or traumatic pathology.  The illnesses of the eye were carefully repertoried, blepharitis, styes, ectropion, trachoma and cataract were competently described but no surgical therapy was proposed.  For the reduction of fractures, it was counselled to immobilise the members in splints made from acacia bark which were then bound with bandelettes covered in resin so as to create a firmer contention.

The limits and the lights of Egyptian Medicine are present in the observation of the cardiovascular system.  It establishes a connection between heartbeats and peripheric pulse but, at the same time, imagines that the said system also carries air, saliva, nasal mucus and sperm.  Even more incredible, blood doesn’t enter into the description of the circulatory rhythms and pulsations.


How should we judge this Medicine which is, with the Sumerian and Chinese Medicines, the oldest in the world?  Above all, we must not compare it with the medical knowledge of the XXIst Century, but see it rather as a decisive moment in the History of Medicine.  In the IIIrd millenium before the present era, it gave us a particularly wise public servant and practician, Imhotep, who was later venerated like a god by the Greeks, as was Aeschylus.  With the Egyptians,

“the magical representations are a thing of the past.  The attempts at explanation are false, but they are rational […].  Medicine entered the combat of the mind with authentic reality.”  (C. Lichtenthaeler).


The Greeks invent Medicine

Hippocrates and Galien, portraits from "Oeuvres" by Ambroise Pare (1582). Hippocrates drew up a chart of illnesses starting from their clinical symptoms. He was the first to eliminate all magical or demonic intervention. Galien, his successor, contributed to the diffusion of his teachings.

“The Greek miracle”;  by using it and abusing it, this formula has finally prevailed.  The Hellenist historians of today no longer seek to support this unique case of spontaneous generation in their works.  It is no longer the fashion to affirm that the Greeks “invented” Democracy, History, Geography, Philosophy and, of course, Medicine.  However, 2500 years after Pericles, all of the world’s doctors continue to take the Oath of Hippocrates.  He whose historical existence is perfectly attested (460-377 before the present era) and important fragments of whose written work we still conserve, was originally from the Island of Kos.  It is to this doctor that we owe Medicine’s essential mutation, the only one which still imposes several of its rules on today’s practicians.

But Hippocrates is the product of an evolution which had begun at the time of Homer, that is to say, three or four centuries earlier.  The Iliad and the Odyssey are of course epic poems, but they contain precious indications on the origins of Greek Medicine.  It does not seem to have been very different in its methods from the Mesopotamian and Egyptian Medicines that we have already evoked.  But, while maintaining certain typically archaic and Oriental characters, it was also beginning an original evolution.  Homer affirms:

“A doctor is a man worth several.”

He mentions the existence of two doctors, Podalires and Macaon, who fight under the walls of Troy and, above all, attributes evident medical science to several of his heroes.  Eurydiles, wounded and helped by the “divine Patrocles”, has the strength to tell him:

“Tear out this arrow from my thigh, wash the wound and the blood which flows from it with warm water and pour into my wound those gentle and excellent balms that you have received from Achilles who received them from Chiron, the most just of the Centaurs.”

So it was the gods who taught the Heroes the art of healing.  As for those demi-gods, the Centaurs, they are credited with initiating a mortal, Aeschylus, to Medicine.  Divinised, Aeschylus has sanctuaries consecrated to him where patients flock to obtain cures.  A clergy formed of priests called aesclepiades guard his temples which are found almost everywhere in Greece, at Titane, Kos, Knide, Cyrene, Rhodes and of course Epidaure, the most famous of them all.  The principal branch of the aesclepiades’ therapeutic activity is the interpretation of patients’ dreams.  After a preparatory fast, the priests bring the patient to sleep inside the temple and observe him while he sleeps.  In the morning, they explain to him the nature of his dreams and indicate the treatment to follow…  This divinatory practice makes headstrong people smile.  Aristophanes ridiculed the “farce” inflicted by the aesclepiades on their faithful.  We can only imagine what he would have thought of the miraculous cures at Lourdes…  It remains, however, that it is in this milieu that Hippocrates was trained.  He descended quite surely from a line of doctor-seers who worked at Kos, Knide and Rhodes.  Plato refers to him as an aesclepiade.


To be continued.