The Ancient Medicine

By : Chandan Banerjee | : 09 June, 2022
The Ancient Medicine

Ancient Medicine

   Chandan Banerjee

"Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine, now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic." Thomas Szasz: The Second Sin.

In recent years, people became greatly exasperated of modern medical science because of its excessive expenses and too much dependence on complicated diagnostic tests including compulsory star-marked luxurious arrangements.Yet, no newtherapeutic and curative medicinal measure had been discovered since decades. A massive change is also seen in the attitudes of the total health system; even it is true in the behaviour of the doctors towards the patients. As a result, people are gradually getting attracted to the other systems of medical treatments, e.g., Homoeopathy, Ayurvedic, Naturopathy,etc. and simultaneously they are imbibing an idea that medical practices were much more advanced in the ancient world than in the modern age. They also believe that every advance of modern medical sciences was achieved by our ancestors thousands years ago.

This kind of idea pushes them to dig their own graves in some cases having fake, wrong treatment or no treatment at all.They are becoming bigoted towards the modern medical system and the number of such people is gradually increasing day by day. 

Under the circumstances, let us throw some light on the medical scenario of our ancestors, to find the truth. Is it true that our ancestors had achieved a level of advancement that could be compared with today's science and technology associated with the present health system?

Let's discuss this in the following paragraphs.

"Nothing is more difficult", sosaid thepoet Byron, "than a beginning". This remark is also correct whenwriting a short history of ancient Medicine. For it is very difficult to state how the primitive men discovered and improved the healing-art. In fact, the "science of life” has always been in existence, and there have always been people who understood it in their own way. It is only with reference to its first systamatised comprehension or instruction that it may be said to have a beginning. (Charaka Samhita, Sutra Sthana 30, 24)

One quite widespread a wrong view is that advance in medical management has been works of professional medical persons only. In reality, however, much of the advances in medicine has been the fruits of labour of persons outside the main channel of medical practice. The common men have also contributed to the medical field, for instances, X-rays, improvement of water supplies and drainage facilities. It is also to be noted that the orthodox medical practice has not always been infallible, and the contributions of the quacks have always been insignificant. For over thousands of years a great majority of sick men were attended by untrained, but practically experienced midwives, self-styled medicine men and alchemists. On the other hand, the conventional medical men provided medical help to only a minuscule-section of the entire population, namely, the elite and aristocrats.

Many ancient people believed sickness to be due to curses, or a punishment meted out by angry gods—who wanted a sacrifice, or to be work of evil spirits that had to be dispelled out of the body by the magical methods.In course of time, however, men found that treatment by magical methods were effective as psychotherapy but ineffective against physical ailments. Therefore, they endeavoured to avail of physical methods of treatments, viz., surgical operations(e.g., trephining of the skull to cure epilepsy) and the application of herbal drugs. The latter method—improvised by trial and error—continued for centuries and ultimately led to the discovery of some effective medicinal herbs.

Let us discuss the development in separate parts of the ancient world.


Mesopotemia: The Sumerian(in Mesopotemia) medicine (3000 B.C.)—which developed earlier than the Egyptian—was still under the influence of spell. But Sumerians considered some magical rodies(remedies?) for antenatal, parturient and puerperal stages of the pregnant women.


In Assyro-Babylonian civilization, the diagnosis was empirical and the liver was considered the seat of the life principle. Available records show that the people of this civilization suffered from cardiac, gastrointestinal, ophthalmic, etc. complications.


Egypt: Physicians were considered a special caste in Egypt. But the progress of Egyptian medicine was impeded by dogmatism, viz., belief in divine origin of medicine.Taboos and pathology were based on demonic possession. People attributed to Asclepius(as son of Apollo and the God of healing) the power of healing all ailments. The people suffering from illness gathered at the temples of Asclepius for prayer and cure. Sorcery, spells, and magic formulas played a great part in therapy. A queer medicine was bile from different animals. As a remedy, the fat of different animals was also used. The recipe for baldness was a medicine prepared by mixing fat taken from various animals. The pharmacist of the ancient times was an experienced hunter. Consequently, fantastic remedies flourished. But in course of time, the practice of medicine grew into an independent discipline, unconnected with priestly influence.

The ancient Egyptian surgeons treated wounds by bandaging with raw meat, white linen, sutures, nets, pads and swabs soaked with honey to prevent infection, while opium was used to relieve from pain. Ancient Egyptian surgeons stitched wounds, set broken bones and amputated diseased limbs.They recognised that some injuries were so serious that they could only make the patient comfortable until he died.

Around 800 AD, the first psychiatric hospital and insane asylum in Egypt were built by Muslim physicians in Cairo.


Hammurabi(1948 - 1905 B.C.), a king of Babylon, enacted a number of rules in order to safeguard the interests of doctors and patients. His rules included fees of doctors and the penalties for professional failures. Rules also mentioned that the doctor who "shall kill the patient or shall destroy the sight of the eye, his hands shall be cut off."

Notwithstanding the poor knowledge of physiology and anatomy, Egyptian physicians had some fair knowledge of blood-circulation and they considered heart to be a vital organ. They recorded variations in body temperature by using the hand as a thermometer. The physician also used his ear for auscultation. Pharmacopoeia indicated specific remedy and dosage. The origin of use of the modern drugs,viz., olive oil, opium, castor oil, etc., may be traced in ancient Egypt. The progress of surgery was thwarted owing to Egyptian practice of preserving cadavers for the resurrection. In short, Egypt may be regarded as the medical epicentre of the ancient age.


Persia: Persian concepts of sickness were mainly magical and religious. They had no knowledge of anatomy.

Palestine: Although the ancient Jewsadopted much of the medical practices of Egypt, including drugs, it had innovated some new concepts and practices and thereby driventhe magic elements away. God was the only healer—disease was punishment for sin. The medical activity was overlapped with priestly function. The Bible speaks a little about some medical aspects, viz., washing of hands before taking food, compulsory baths after menstruation, daily baths, rules concerning nursing of lepers, a hypothesis regarding connection between rats and the plague. The Bible is the first textbook on sanitary rules. It gives much information on social hygiene. 


Greece: Hippocrates (460 -377 B.C.), "Father of medicine", is credited with the impression that the cause of the disease is not magical, but physical. His scientific observations in the 'Collection' of medical manuscripts were of value for many centuries. It contains Hippocratic Oath or Code of conduct which speaks of humanitarian service and has exerted a great influence down to the modern times. The 'Collection' gives emphasis on the importance of climate, diet and the healing powers of nature. Insanity, to him is a disease, but not a sign of a divine disapproval. He classified disease as acute, chronic and endemic. He had little knowledge of anatomy in virtue of the absence of dissection facilities. According to his humoral theory, the body fluids, viz., blood, black bile, yellow bile, phelgm, had to be properly balanced to maintain health. The principle of "SimiliaSimilibus", and mutatis mutandis, were employed for drugs. Hippocratic pharmacopeia was rich. He was the innovator of medical ethics. Herphilus (300 B.C.)"Father of Anatomy"had been able to distinguish between arteries and veins, named the prostate gland, duodenum, hyoid bone and many parts of the brain. He used pulse for diagnosis.


Galen: (129 - 199 A.D.), the Roman physician was the author of 400 books on pharmacology, anatomy and clinical problems. He followed the principle of "contrariacontraris", e.g., cold was applied to ailments caused by heat, and vice versa. He was the first to conclude that blood moved through arteries within the human body owing to the pumping activity of heart.

The disintegration of the Roman Empire and Civilization impeded the progress of medicine in Europe for about a thousand years.


China: The origin of Chinese medicine is magic, sorcery and demonics. It developed empirically. Dissection, Anatomy and Physiology were speculative subjects to the Chinese. But they had a hypothetical knowledge of the blood circulation. Their diagnosis and prognosis of the case were based on the reading of the pulse. The remedies mentioned in the Chinese "MateriaMedica" were very rich and many of them are used today, viz., massage and acupuncture, besides many herbal drugs. In ancient China finger-prints were made use of to identify persons.


Japan: This country adopted the Chinese lines of therapeutics, till the influence of Germany in 1867.


India: The Rig-Veda(1500B.C.) gives magic recipes against the demons of ailments. Some medical references are also available in Ayurveda(700B.C.). But leading medical personages were Charaka(in the beginning of the Christian Era), and Susruta(500 B.C.). The latter mentioned many surgical instruments and medicinal plants. He had noted the association between mosquito and malaria, and rats and plague. The various medical schools, besides writing on Anatomy proper, dealt with embryology and histology. Charaka's and Susruta's narration about the part played by male and female in the formation of foetus is most interesting and pre-modern

Indian medicine was rich in drugs. Susruta recorded over seven hundred medicinal plants. Indians excelled in the surgical skills. Perfumes, flowers and music were employed in therapeutics in order to make recuperation more delightful and fruitful. "Materia Medica" of Mesopotemia and Egypt may be favourably compared with that of ancient India. Importance was given on hygiene, diet, ablutions and disposal of excreta, filtering of water through sand, charcoal, etc.


West Africa: The West Africans, more specifically the Akan were aware of the knowledge of inoculation against small pox. 

Bonesetting was practised by many groups of west Africa, The Akan, Mano and Yoruba were few among them.

In Djenne the mosquito was identified to be the cause of malaria.

The removal of cataract was a common surgical procedure as in many other parts of Africa.

The harms caused by tobacco smoking were known to the African Muslim scholars as seen inTimbutktu manuscripts.

The discussions above reveal that the medical science was mainly developed in India, Egypt, China, Greece and in the West Africa in the ancient period. Although some other civilizations like Maya or Inca were developed, they couldn't make out the reasons behind diseases or invent any sort of remedies to add anything to the art of healing. 

To conclude, we should admit that the ancient medicine paved the way for the discovery of modern medicine and all the credits go mostly to Egypt, India, Greece, China and West Africa. But it would be far from truth to say that the ancients had the same knowledge as the moderns, or that one may replace modern medicine with the ancient ones without any loss of efficacy and wisdom. Enriched by the multifaceted development in various branches of science, based on experimental and quantitative support medicine and surgery in the last hundred years have attained a remarkable height. The capitalist corporate society with its ever tightening commercial grip on everything including public health has rendered it into a greedy shark to loot the purses of the people.



1. Collier's Encyclopaedia, V.15, Macmillan Educational Co., N. Y., 1986.

2.The New Caxton Encyclopaedia, V. 13, Caxtony Publication, London.

3.New Standard Encyclopaedia, V 9, Standard Educational Corporation, Chicago.

4.Ancient Indian Medicine by Dr. P. Kutumbiah, Orient Longman, Madras, 1962.

5.The Story of Medicine by V. Coleman, a Jill Norman Book, London, 1985.

6.Magician and Leech by W. R. Dawson, 1929.

7.A History of Medicine by D. Guthrie, Thomas Nelson and Sons, N. Y., 1958

8.The Anatomical Knowledge of the Ancient Hindus by F. S. Hammett. Ann. Med. Hist., 1929, V.1.

9.History of Babylon by L. W.King, 1915.

10.The Surgical Instruments of the Hindus by G. N. Mukhopadhyay, Kolkata, 1913.

11.Medicine in the Bible by C. J. Brim, N. Y. 1936.

12.The Legacy of Egypt by S. R.K. Gianville (ed.), 1942.

13.The Chineese Way in Medicine by E. H. Hume, Baltimore, 1940.

14.Studies in the Medicine of Ancient India by A. F. R. Hoernle, 1907.




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Chandan Banerjee
Chandan Banerjee
Social worker and Writer
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