How the Practice of Medicine Has Changed Through Time

How the Practice of Medicine Has Changed Through Time

Medicine is constantly changing for the better.

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For many people, a trip to the doctor feels like a fairly normal occurrence that doesn't require much thought or consideration, but it's easy to forget just how many technological advances in modern medicine developed out of scientific theories going back generations. Radiation therapy, stem cell treatment, anesthetics, antibiotics and other key breakthroughs in medicine could not exist today without the extensive groundwork laid by dozens of generations of physicians, surgeons, nurses, and scientists throughout history, for example, and here are just a few of the ways that medicine has changed through time in more ways than we might imagine.

Anesthesia: A Relatively Recent Phenomenon

Although we live in a time of technological and scientific advancement that is unprecedented in history, many of our scientific concepts owe a debt to scientific pioneers who lived hundreds if not thousands of years in the past. The Hippocratic Oath that doctors still swear to uphold on becoming licensed physicians is said to have been first invented by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (often described as "The Father of Medicine") an estimated 2500 years ago, for example, while many advances in anesthetics were developed by the surgeon John Collins Warren in the mid-19th Century. While it may seem baffling to us now, surgery prior to Warren's key work on the use of anesthetic during surgery involved operating on patients who were wide awake at the time.

Humorism: No Laughing Matter

In fact, many concepts from the history of medicine still define the way that we look at health conditions from bodily illnesses to mental disorders. To this day, the condition known as "depression" is often synonymous with the word "melancholy," for example, a term referring to a physical concept that dates back to Hippocrates's work in Ancient Greece. To wit, until the concept was overturned by the work of English doctor William Harvey in 1628, physicians believed that the health of the body was regulated by four "humors": phlegm, blood, yellow bile (choler), and black bile (melancholy).

Melancholy, Choler, and Bloodletting

According to physicians who practiced this "humoristic" view of anatomy, a person's outlook on life could be attributed to the "humor" that was most dominant in their body at a given time. If yellow bile (choler) was the dominant fluid in a patient's body, for example, a physician might say that the patient was "choleric" or prone to bouts of anger. If black bile (melancholy) was the dominant fluid in the body of the patient, the physician might say that the person was melancholy or subject to feelings of hopelessness, and may have prescribed bloodletting to treat the condition. In fact, the belief that black bile caused depression in sufferers was so widespread that in 1621 the Oxford University scholar Robert Burton published a 900-page tome called "The Anatomy of Melancholy" to help people better understand the condition.

Helping or Hurting the Patient?

As if the theory of bodily humors was not strange enough, the treatment of an imbalance of bodily humors could also literally kill you: As they did to treat depression, doctors once used the brutal treatment of bloodletting as a means to "balance" the humors, and even after the concept of humorism began to lose its sway with medical practitioners in the 17th Century, bloodletting continued to be a popularly-employed treatment for various illnesses. Indeed, the practice of bloodletting killed no less a personage than President George Washington, whose doctor enacted a severe course of bloodletting to treat a throat infection.

While doctors have moved on from such practices as bloodletting, analyzing the "humors" dominant in a patient's body, and practicing surgery without anesthetic, the truth is that the trial-and-error methods of medical practitioners throughout history have largely contributed to the worldview that medical professionals use today. Concepts such as the Hippocratic Oath and the development of methods for providing pain-free surgical procedures remain vital principles in the medical profession, and while many of the treatments used by physicians throughout history may appear brutal and out-of-date to our sensibilities, it is also true that without the light shining forth from their hard work and commitment to care, we would still be struggling in the dark.