Importance of the History of Medicine

Benjamin Tsang

Medicine as we know it has progressed and changed vastly from what it was thousands of years ago. The history of medicine is one of trial and error, and although some of our older practises may now seem obscure and outdated, it is important that we learn from our past mistakes and also how errors can actually lead to insights.

Whenever the history of medicine is mentioned, the first person who comes to mind is usually none other than the “Father of Modern Medicine” himself – Hippocrates. It may be hard to imagine that an ancient Greek from around 2400 years ago would be the father of “modern” medicine, but if we look into the surviving works of Hippocrates and his students, we will find that many of our current core values and medical ethics originated from them. One prime example is the Hippocratic Oath, parts of which are still present in the oath medical students nowadays swear to. The major message physicians nowadays take from this is the promise of non-maleficence and beneficence, which form the essential two parts of the four pillars of medical ethics.

Whilst Hippocrates’ influence on our views on medicine is definite, dilemmas such as euthanasia and abortion also bring the Hippocratic view of “First do no harm” to question. The Hippocratic Oath directly includes “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked” and “I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion”, which not only clearly states Hippocrates’ view, but also tells us that euthanasia and abortion have been dilemmas for more than 2400 years. Even today, those who argue against euthanasia and abortion often use the Hippocratic Oath to justify their stance. This goes to show how certain elements of medicine’s past are still prominent and utilised in the medical world today.

These days, the knowledge that bacteria and viruses cause diseases is something we take for granted, for how often do we contemplate the idea that once upon a time, we thought that it was divine intervention whenever we had a cold? However, the journey to discovering that microorganisms cause diseases – Germ Theory, was a long maze that led us to many dead ends. For 1300 years since the Roman Empire, the theory for the cause of diseases was dominated by Galen’s Miasma theory – diseases were caused by “bad air”. A rather ridiculous notion of the time was that one could become obese by inhaling the smell of food! In 1546, a scientist called Fracastoro began to challenge this theory with a basic version of Germ Theory, but it took more than 300 years of further research by various other scientists, namely Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, to eventually establish and prove Germ Theory.

As one can see, the history of medicine is full of mistakes and blunders that are actually made by some very influential and intellectual people. Nevertheless, our predecessors never gave up or stopped asking questions, and ultimately, their errors led to discoveries that benefited all humankind. This spirit of curiosity and discovery is something that we as prospective medical students must take note and carry on, as we will be the integral part of future medical research and it will be our responsibility to help shape the future of healthcare.

In general, the purpose of studying history is so that we do not make the same mistakes again, and this is undoubtedly true when regarding the history of medicine. Yet medicine’s past is not limited to mistakes, but instead, is comprised of many feats of discovery and advancement. In fact, much of the past is still relevant and hugely debated today. Therefore, it is imperative that prospective doctors do study the history of medicine and understand what it means to carry it on into the future.

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