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Origins of Ancient Medical Advances

By Janice Farris

Origins of Ancient Medical Advances

Medical procedures, devices, and knowledge have gone through many levels of understanding and implementation for civilization to arrive at its modern understanding and utilization of medical practices. This has been an intense learning process, and the origin of some practices might go back farther than some tend to believe. 


Medical tools and instruments have existed for quite some time, with

many different cultures developing similar implements despite vast

stretches of land isolating and forcing these cultures to develop

independently of one another. One of the earliest recorded instances

of surgery comes from ancient Mesopotamia, around 3000 BCE.

Cuneiform tablets from this period mention surgical procedures such

as the removal of tumors and abscesses. These early surgeons utilized

crude instruments made of materials like bronze and obsidian,

showcasing a rudimentary understanding of surgical techniques.

In ancient Egypt, surgical practices were well-documented in

medical texts like the Edwin Smith Papyrus, dating back to around

1600 BCE. This ancient Egyptian treatise outlines procedures for

wound treatment, fracture management, and even brain surgery. The surgical tools used by Egyptian physicians included knives, probes, and forceps, emphasizing the precision required for delicate procedures. The ancient Greeks, particularly the famed physician Hippocrates, made significant contributions to the field of surgery. Hippocrates is often referred to as the father of Western medicine, and his teachings emphasized the importance of observation and documentation in medical practice. Greek surgeons performed various surgeries, including those related to hernias, fractures, and eye disorders. The Hippocratic Oath, which sets ethical standards for physicians, remains influential in the medical profession today. In ancient India, the Susruta Samhita, an ancient Sanskrit text dating back to around 600 BCE, provided detailed descriptions of surgical procedures. Susruta, considered one of the earliest surgeons in history, covered topics ranging from plastic surgery to dental surgery. The text outlined the use of surgical instruments like scalpels, forceps, and lancets, illustrating a comprehensive understanding of anatomy and surgical techniques.

A famous surgical technique that developed independently across several cultures is the practice of trephination. This surgical technique, used to remove a piece of skull, dates back thousands of years and spans across continents, with evidence found in archaeological sites from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The tools used for trephination varied based on the region and the technological advancements of the time. Stone instruments, such as obsidian blades, were commonly employed in ancient civilizations, showcasing the surgical skill and precision of these early practitioners. One prevalent motive for trephination was the belief that it could treat various ailments, including head injuries, seizures, and mental disorders. In ancient cultures like those of the Incas in South America, trephination

was performed to release evil spirits or alleviate pressure caused by

head injuries. Similarly, in ancient Egypt, trephination was practiced

as a therapeutic measure to address head injuries, fractures, or

cranial swelling.

Prosthetics are another example of human ingenuity that developed

across multiple cultures simultaneously in order to improve the quality

of life of the affected person. In ancient Egypt, artifacts and depictions

suggest the use of prosthetic limbs. The Greville Chester toe, dating

back to around 600 BCE, is one such example. Crafted from wood and

leather, this prosthetic toe was designed to provide support and aid in walking. The craftsmanship demonstrated in the Greville Chester toe reflects the ancient Egyptians' understanding of anatomy and their commitment to improving the quality of life for amputees. The Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilization in ancient Italy, left behind evidence of advanced dental prosthetics. Archaeological findings include dental bridges made from human and animal teeth held together with gold bands. These early attempts at dental restorations demonstrate an awareness of the importance of oral health and the development of innovative solutions. The Roman Empire also contributed to the evolution of prosthetics. Evidence suggests the use of iron and bronze in crafting artificial limbs, with a focus on functionality. These prosthetics were tailored to suit the needs of military personnel who had lost limbs in battle, emphasizing the practical aspects of prosthetic design. In ancient China, the use of prosthetics can be traced back to as early as the third century BCE. The Chinese developed prosthetic limbs made from materials such as wood, bamboo, and leather. During the Renaissance in Europe, technological advancements brought about notable improvements in prosthetic design. Ambroise Paré, a French surgeon from the 16th century, is credited with introducing innovative ideas for prosthetic limbs. His designs incorporated mechanical elements, allowing for more natural movements and improved functionality. These advancements marked a turning point in the history of prosthetics, setting the stage for further developments in the centuries to come.

While we tend to think of the rapid medical advances made within the last 150 years that have led to modern medical marvels such as MRI machines, pacemakers, dialysis machines, and many more, it is interesting to note where our ancestors first began in their pursuits of expanding medical knowledge for the betterment of mankind.

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