As a former nurse, and one who handled the medical care of what society considers its least desirable members, the history of medicine has always fascinated me. We can learn a lot from where we came from, heading into the future knowing what has failed in our history. Many of the instruments pictured here most certainly failed, but they were the very backbone of what modern medicine has become and what its tools were modeled after.
The above image was a pre-Civil War era sterilizer. The sterilizer worked like a crock pot. Now, we have disposable instruments for the most part.
Constipation has always been a problem for humans. Green lifestyles and eating organic weren’t well-known in the ancient world. The lack of bowel control was often seen as a curse from an unhappy God. Have you ever wondered where the term, “proctologist”, comes from? According to this site, the ancient Egyptian term for proctologist, “neru phuyt”, literally translates as “shepherd of the anus”. The proctologist was the inspector of the anal fluids. What a wonderful job he had. Depending on the color of the fluids coming from one’s anus, a plethora of different devices and/or elixirs usually made from herbs would be prescribed. One of those devices is seen below.
This leads us to how bones in the “posterior region” were handled. As this article describes, Spain was once a part of the Islamic empire. The Spanish took on the Muslim medical practices during that time. One of those procedures, disturbingly, involved setting the coccyx bone (tailbone). The source states: “If the last bone of the coccyx, which is the sacrum of the tail, breaks, introduce the thumb of your left hand into his anus and reset the bone with other hand in whatever way is possible and affords the best setting…if you perceive a fragment in the fracture, cut down upon it, remove it, and dress the wound as before said, until it heals.” Ouch. That must have hurt. Remember, there were no anesthetics at this time in history.
The earliest known surgical procedure was conducted by the Neolithic people about 7,000 years ago. The operation consisted of removing a piece of the skull to expose the dura mater, the tough fibrous membrane forming the outer envelope of the brain. If the dura mater was not penetrated, the patient had a fair to good chance of surviving – and in fact, archeological evidence of skulls examined showed various degrees of healing, indicating survival. The above image is a surgical set of tools, obviously a bit more modern – made sometime during the 1800s. No anesthetic was invented until after the turn of the 20th century, and then the medicine was dangerous at best. Surgical procedures had a high mortality rate due to the hemorrhaging.
The first eye surgery was recorded in India around 800 B.C. and was called Shastra-karma. It is described thus:
“The doctor warmed the patient’s eye with the breath ~ of his mouth. He rubbed the closed eye of the patient with his thumb and then asked the patient to look at his knees. The patient’s head was held firmly. The doctor held the lancet between his fore-finger, middle-finger and thumb and introduced it into the patient’s eye towards the pupil, half a finger’s breadth from the black of the eye and a quarter of a finger’s breadth from the outer corner of the eye. He moved the lancet gracefully back and forth and upward. There was a small sound and a drop of water came out. “The doctor spoke a few words to comfort the patient and moistened the eye with milk. He scratched the pupil with the tip or the lancet, without hurting, and then drove the ‘slime’ towards the nose. The patient got rid of the ‘slime’ by drawing it into his nose. It was a matter of joy for the patient that the could see objects through his operated eye and the doctor drew the lancet out slowly. He then laid cotton soaked in fat on the wound and the patient lay still with the operated eye bandaged. It was the patient’s left eye and the doctor used his right hand for the operation.”
The highest incidences of surgery in ancient history seem to have been in Peru and Bolivia; as least this is what artifacts discovered there suggest. Evidence for surgical practices has also been found in Europe, Asia, New Zealand, some Pacific Islands and North America. Unbelievably, circumcision was conducted by the ancient Egyptians – before there was any real knowledge about how to perform the procedure and prevent infection and loss of the penis. You can see an ancient Egyptian circumcision chart here.
Abortion was performed in in ancient times as well. As early as the 9th century B.C., Cambodian women underwent this operation. This was a sad state of affairs because the baby couldn’t be expelled until he/she was nearly full-termed – big enough to be massaged out of the womb prematurely before the baby’s skull was cracked like an egg.
Below is the tool later used to end a pregnancy – with or without the need to massage the baby out of the womb – through blunt force trauma on the woman’s abdomen. Beating the woman’s abdomen continued until the baby was expelled, according to this site.
Before we go further, note that doctors had no requirement to go through medical school, gain experience, or achieve any certifications. There was nothing to prevent someone from indiscriminately calling themselves a doctor. If the person was successful at keeping his patients alive, then he remained in practice. There was no supervision and there were a lot of shady practices to ensure a steady flow of patients.
As most people know, there was a practice called bloodletting, which flourished in the Dark Ages. At first, monks and priests performed these procedures. Later it was delegated to barbers, which is frightening to say the least. Doctors wouldn’t handle these procedures because, as stated earlier, they didn’t have any training or experience. However, as we approach the end of the 19th century, doctors became the chief surgeons and performed nearly all medical procedures, including bloodletting. More about bloodletting can be read here.
There is substantial evidence from artifacts that prosthetics existed in ancient times. The prosthesis would be attached by leather straps and the false limb itself was made of wood. Here is a picture of a toe prosthesis – no doubt enabling the wearer to walk better.
It is unfortunate that our ancestors didn’t have some of the marvels of modern medicine we have now. However, it is the opinion of this author that the time and attention given to patients during those periods in history was in some ways better. They didn’t rush in and out of patients’ rooms and bark out orders for another computerized test. They had to rely on some good old common sense and listening skills.