Six thousand years ago, in ancient Sumaria, (modern day Iraq) people enjoyed bathing in mineral springs. And in the walled city of Ur with its towering ziggurat, the law which the 20,000 Sumarians must obey was strict hygiene, quarantine for returning soldiers with infectious diseases and soap to disinfect their homes and possessions. In the absence of truth however, superstition governed their thinking. Magico-religion was their only defense against drought and plague and the famines so often the result of warfare were regarded as punishment sent by the gods.
Two thousand years later (4000BC) the code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon (in modern Iraq) included ten laws describing the payments physicians could charge and the penalties they would suffer if the patient died. Should the unfortunate patient be a nobleman, the physician’s were hands cut off.
One thousand years later the standard of Egyptian medicine had degenerated to a level where many physicians treated single disorders with vile concoctions of lion and ostrich excreta, mercury, live insects and fat from black snakes to drive out demons. Failing this they resorted to magic spells. Violent purging of the bowels and bleeding with leeches was a standard practice that continued into the nineteenth century. These treatments were only for the wealthy.
The rise and fall of civilizations over the next millennia heralded a zenith of wisdom and achievement and in the fourth century BC. Hippocrates, the Greek priest-physician lifted medicine above the level of magic and superstition to a realm of scientific observation and accurate diagnosis based on systematically observing the patient’s age, attitude, speech, diet, sleep, environment, and customs. Hippocrates taught his surgeons the importance of scrupulous hygiene while performing successful operations on gangrenous limbs, tumors, and kidney stones without sterilized instruments or anaesthetics. His genius in curing seemingly hopeless cases, and halting a plague of typhus in the besieged city of Athens won him wide acceptance and fame. But he is best remembered by his Physician’s Oath of service, which twenty-four hundred years later, is still taught in medical schools.
During the second century BC the Greek Civilization was overthrown by Rome, and Galen, the first of a new breed of physicians, took center stage for the next fifteen hundred years. Galen served as an assistant-priest in an Asclepian dream temple, as a physician treating brutal wounds in a gladiator school and as the royal physician to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He extolled Galen’s medicinal theriac, a concoction of vipers flesh, poisonous creatures, opium, wine, cannabis, cinnamon and sixty ground herbals Galen was a brilliant surgeon, and the author of more than one hundred works, translated centuries later into Arabic and Latin. Galen was as famous as he was arrogant. Supremely proud of his dissecting skills, he assumed that human anatomy and that of barbary apes was identical. This perverted scientific progress for 1,500 years and cost mankind millions of lives.
Could history repeat itself? Could the authorities be so determined to protect our health that they would concoct a new brand of Galen’s theriac?. Green monkey cells, aborted fetal cells, mercury, formaldehyde? You be the judge.