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10 Milestones in Early Medicine

10 Milestones in Early Medicine

  • The physician is only nature's assistant. Galen Claudius (~130–200 AD)

  • 1. Herbs Lie at the Root of Medicine: The earliest scientific tradition in medical practice, herbal medicine, has roots in every culture around the world. Western herbalism dates back to ancient Egypt. Eastern herbalism mainly comes from Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine traditions. Herbalism uses herbs to treat a disease’s underlying causes by restoring the body's natural balance. In many traditions, herbs are used as a preventative to boost immune function and promote general well-being.

  • 2. Medicine’s First Gatekeeper: The Egyptian high priest Imhotep (2667–2648 BC), the first known physician, is thought to have diagnosed and treated more than 200 diseases. The ancient Egyptian doctors were advanced in their understanding of the human body, afflictions, and ailments and in recognizing that, like physical disorders, mental disorders were real. Many consider Imhotep, the only regular person elevated to God status in ancient Egypt, the true father of medicine.

  • 3. First, Do No Harm—or Else: In issuing one of the world’s first codes of law in 2030 BC, King Hammurabi of Babylon addressed physicians’ medical responsibilities and the consequences of failing to meet them. Simply put, the Code of Hammurabi provided that doctors would be punished if their treatments caused harm. A surgeon guilty of “malpractice” could be branded or executed or lose his fingers or hands. Modern medical malpractice penalties seem tame by comparison.

  • 4. Hippocrates Honors the Oath: Greek physician Hippocrates (460-375 BC), traditionally regarded as the father of medicine, is best known for the Hippocratic Oath, though it is suspected he did not write it. He founded the Hippocratic School of Medicine, which established medicine as a distinct discipline and as a profession, and exercised a permanent influence on the development of medicine and on the ideals and ethics of the physician. Here a woman holds a bowl of Hygeia, a symbol of medicine.

  • 5. Hail, Galen!: The greatest physician of ancient Rome, Galen influenced the development of anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology. His skill and knowledge in anatomy and surgery were considerable, and as a master of medical philosophy, he promoted the study of philosophy as essential to a physician's training. Galen was thought to be an authority on all medical matters until the Renaissance, when some of his teachings were questioned.

  • 6. Encyclopedia of Medicine Sets Standards: Persian philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina), considered one of the greatest thinkers and medical scholars in history, completed the Canon of Medicine in 1025. In this encyclopedia of medicine, he summarized the medical knowledge of the time and set the standards for medicine in Medieval Europe and the Islamic world. The Canon of Medicine was regarded as a medical authority as late as the early 19th century.

  • 7. Hole-istic Medicine Goes Medieval: In trepanation—an operation that dates back to prehistoric times—a surgeon drilled a hole in a patient’s skull to expose the brain. Physicians thought the procedure might alleviate migraines, epilepsy, and swelling, though in some cultures it was performed ritualistically on healthy persons. Trepanning continued to be used frequently during the Middle Ages. This illustration of a Medieval doctor and patient is from a 14th-century French medical manuscript. Pass the anesthetic!

  • 8. Let the Bloodletting Begin: Withdrawal of blood from a patient to cure or prevent disease became accepted as the standard treatment for many conditions in the Middle Ages. Existence was thought to be represented by 4 elements—earth, air, fire, water—that in humans were related to 4 humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile—so an excess of a humor was removed for treatment. Dr François Broussais, who claimed all fevers result from specific organ inflammation, introduced the use of leeches.

  • 9. Plagued By Infection: Pandemics became commonplace. The second one, the “Black Death,” originated in China in the early 14th century and spread to Constantinople and to Europe, claiming 60% of the population. The death toll was the largest from any known nonviral epidemic. Ironically, high mortality rates produced massive labor shortages, speeding up many modernizations and contributing to the emergence of the Renaissance. The plague returned throughout the 14th to 17th centuries.

  • 10. Anatomy of a Renaissance Man: Major advances in medicine during the Renaissance came about with a new, more scientific approach helped by the anatomical expertise of Renaissance artists. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) made significant contributions, dissecting 30 or so corpses to get a full understanding of the human body and providing both accurate drawings and explanations. Da Vinci also contributed to the development of artificial limbs and synthetic organs and came up the idea of the contact lens.

The long history of medicine is checkered with accomplishments—and some head-scratchers—that in one way or another advanced the science and art of healing.

This slideshow illustrates some of the more significant developments, from ancient times through the Renaissance.

An upcoming installment will take you through to the present time, with a focus on the development of primary care medicine.

Start with the slide above to see where it all began.


I wanted to see them, but the arrow would not move the slides.

Florence @

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