Tag Archives: medical history

Robert Koch: Proving Germ Theory

Robert Koch (1843-1910) was a poor country doctor in Germany. One day his life took a new direction when an epidemic struck the local farm animals. The culprit was anthrax. Even though Koch was a doctor for humans, he decided to study this disease that is commonly associated with animals.

The Germ

Anthrax is a disease that can strike suddenly and seemingly without warning. Animals will be healthy one day and dead the next. It was also possible for the disease to sicken and kill humans. There was no cure for the disease outside of killing the animals.

Koch began his research on anthrax with a microscope his wife had given him and no other equipment. If he needed something, he would make it himself or use common everyday items such as dinner plates. As Koch examined the blood of the dead animals, he continued to notice the presence of a bacteria in the blood of the dead animals. He never found these bacteria in healthy animals.

At this time, there was still controversy over whether germs caused disease. Therefore, it was not clear if the bacteria were causing anthrax. This means that Koch had to investigate more closely as to what the bacteria in the blood meant. To confirm his findings, Koch conducted an experiment.

The Experiment

The experiment involved growing anthrax outside of the blood. Then the cultured anthrax was placed inside living mice. The mice were killed by anthrax with their blood containing the bacteria. This was the proof Koch needed that anthrax was the killer.

Koch also found that the bacteria could survive outside a liquid in a state Koch called spores. In this state, anthrax could survive extreme conditions—this helped to explain how contagious the disease. Killing animals was not enough. They needed to be burned or buried deep in the ground to prevent infection.

Sharing Results

The next step for Koch was to take pictures of the bacteria. Then he decided to share his findings. Koch was an outsider to academic life, and working in the countryside did not warrant the respect he needed at this moment. Nevertheless, he contacted a university, and they agreed to let him share his results. Koch didn’t lecture; instead, he repeated his experiments at the university. Students and teachers saw the mice die along with the pictures of anthrax.

The impact was unquestioned. Koch had shown that germ clearly caused disease. This laid to rest what was, at one time, a controversial idea that unseen microbes could make people sick. These ideas are far removed from what Galen was proposing several thousand years ago.


Koch did not necessarily find a cure for anthrax. Instead, he was able to confirm the theory of germs. This may not have been the goal, but it was a significant contribution to medicine that convinced skeptical experts. The person who would defeat anthrax was Louis Pasteur, the same person who developed germ theory.

James Lind: The Scourge of Scurvy

Scurvy was at one time a serious problem for sailors who spent a long time at sea. Scurvy, which means “scaly skin,” causes weight loss, fatigue, bleeding gums, and tooth loss. The underlying problem is a weakening of the connective fibers that hold the body together.

During the 1700s, the British empire spread worldwide and required a massive navy for commercial and military reasons. Scurvy was wearing down the strength of the empire.

Naval Doctor

The answer for scurvy was found by James Lind (1716-1794), a Scottish physician. He began his career as a surgeon in the British navy and was surprised by the amount of suffering that scurvy was causing in the navy. As Lind started to examine this problem, he began to see the context.

During this time, voyages on ships for sailors could last more than a year. Storing food was always a problem for such long trips. Most food was dried and or preserved with salt. There was almost no access to fruits and vegetables. Lind began to suspect that the lack of fruit and vegetables was a contributing factor in scurvy.

To confirm his suspicion, Lind conducted an experiment. He created several different groups of sailors suffering from scurvy, and he gave each group a different diet. He found that the group of men who were given oranges or lemons could recover and return to work. This indicated that there was a relationship between scurvy and citrus fruits.

The Test

The famous explorer James Cook heard of Lind’s work. Cook wanted to explore the Pacific Ocean. The problem was such a trip would take over four years. This meant that the risk of scurvy would be high for him and his crew. Cook as Lind what he could do, and Lind recommended taking citrus fruits and stopping at ports whenever possible to purchase fresh food. With this advice, Cook made his trip and outline several countries along with parts of Antarctica.

Despite the success of citrus fruit in addressing scurvy, British navy leaders and other medical professionals were not supportive of Lind’s findings. It was mainly a matter of pride as the navy thought it provided the best food possible for their sailors. It would take ten years for them to implement the changes proposed by Lind regarding the use of citrus fruit.

Medical professionals were also doubtful of Lind’s recommendations. This was during a time when there were still question about the connection between diet and disease. This skepticism continued for much longer than the doubts of the navy.


Lind had found the answer for scurvy, but he did not know why citrus fruit helped to prevent or cure this disease. The reason why eating citrus fruits found this works about 100 years later. It was found that the body needs vitamin C. Scurvy was a sign that someone was a deficiency in vitamin C. When food is preserved through drying, salting, it destroys vitamin C. It is important to remember that sometimes the answer doesn’t necessarily have to be understood at the time that it is used.

Andreas Vesalius: Learning by Doing

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) was an influential English-Belgian doctor of the 16th century. He came from a medical family as he had several family members who were doctors, and his father was an apothecary (pharmacist). Vesalius decided early in life that he wanted to follow the family tradition of medical practice.


At the age of 17, Vesalius went to university. He studied at at least three different universities. The first was the University of Paris. While in Paris, Vesalius was able to attend lectures by the famous Jacobus Sylvius. However, Vesalius grew bored over listening to Sylvius read aloud the books of Galen. Vesalius believed in a more active learning approach to doing medicine rather than listening to it. In other words, Vesalius thought that the teacher should do the dissections rather than only talk about them.

Due to war, Vesalius continued his studies in Belgium at the University of Louvain. While at Louvain, Vesalius found a human skeleton that he was able to observe and learn from. He also noted some discrepancies between the human skeleton he possessed at the teachings of Galen. For example, Galen claimed that the breastbone has seven segments, but Vesalius could only find three segments in the human skeleton. This discrepancy is because Galen dissected apes and not humans.

Vesalius’ next school was Padua University in Italy and perhaps the most prestigious school in Europe at the time. In Padua, Vesalius completes his education and becomes a faculty member at the tender age of 22.


Vesalius’ teaching was revolutionary at the time. He believed in doing the dissections himself in front of the students. Many people thought that the book was enough to learn anatomy, and there was no need for dissections. However, students loved Vesalius’ demonstration-style approach, and his classes were packed with up to 400 students.

Having such a large class led to other problems. It was hard for students to see the dissections. This was before videos and LCD projectors. Another problem was the dead body. After a day or two, the body Vesalius was dissecting would begin to rot. To solve these problems, Vesalius started making drawings of his dissections that students could study.

As Vesalius continued teaching, he began to make corrections to the works of Galen. This was unspeakable given the status of Galen. However, Vesalius could not find several of Galen’s observations in animals in people. These corrections were put into a book by Vesalius with help from an artist. Other doctors objected to Vesalius’ modifications and the use of an artist. However, artists often knew more about the body than doctors as they wanted their drawings and paintings to be as realistic as possible, which meant knowledge of anatomy.

Vesalius’ reforms were too much for his colleagues. He was attacked continuously, and he took things too personally. In addition, his books were so popular that people pirated them, which meant Vesalius never received much profit from his innovations. Eventually, all this became too much for Vesalius, and he would leave teaching and eventually died somewhere around 50 years of age.


Experiential learning was Vesalius’ main gift to education in his field. Before Vesalius, teachers talked about the body. After Vesalius, teachers showed the body to their students. This shift from talk to action created a much more engaging learning experience. Such an approach benefited many students much to the chagrin of other teachers. Vesalius gave his students practical experience versus head knowledge, which is critical when working with living people.

Ignaz Semmelweiss: Cleanliness

Ignaz Semmelweiss (1818-1865) initially went to university to become a lawyer. However, a friend invited him to a lecture and medicine. Becoming fascinated with medicine Semmelweiss switch his studies to become a physician.

Death in the Maternity Ward

In 1844, Semmelweiss graduated from the University of Vienna as a medical doctor. After graduation, Semmelweiss accepted a position as a doctor at a charity hospital for poor women. The hospital had two wards. One ward was for training doctors, while the second ward was for training midwives. For some strange reason, pregnant women would beg to be sent to the midwife ward to have their baby.

Semmelweiss was curious about this but could not get a straight answer from the women about why they preferred midwives to medical doctors. Eventually, he heard rumors that people believed that more women died from the doctors than the midwives. Semmelweiss began to investigate this. He found that about 1% of the women who went to the midwives died while about 25% of the women who went to the doctors died. In other words, it was safer to go to a midwife than a highly trained medical doctor for childbirth.

Many of the women who died among the doctors died from childbed fever, a type of infection. Semmelweiss was trying to figure out what was causing this infection. During this time, one of Semmelweiss’ best friends died. His friend died from childbed fever. What made this strange was that Semmelweiss’ friend was a man and had not had a baby.

The Problem Found

It turns out that his friend had been performing an autopsy one week before his death on one of the many women who had died from childbed fever. During the procedure, the careless student accidentally nicked Semmelweiss’ friend’s finger. The injury caused some minor bleeding, which eventually led to the infection that caused his death.

Semmelweiss figure that childbed fever was contagious and that doctors were spreading this infection around through uncleanliness. It was common for a doctor to go from the morgue to the operating room to visiting patients while wearing the same blood-soaked clothes. On the other hand, the midwives never performed autopsies (they weren’t qualified) and always made sure everything was clean.

Semmelweiss concluded that doctors needed to wash their hands and keep their clothes clean. When he shared this with his colleagues and students, they thought it was embarrassing because being clean was for midwives. After all, they were doctors. Others thought this was a joke. The hospital administrator called Semmelweiss’ idea foolish and claimed there was no budget for the soap and water Semmelweiss was wasting.

Success and Failure

With time, and through Semmelweiss’s stubbornness, the death rate fell from 25% to 1%. In line with the midwives’ results. The administrator called the decline a coincidence, students claimed that Semmelweiss was calling them murderers, and they disagreed with him. This all was happening in the mid 1840’s at the beginning of Semmelwiess’s career.

Despite the 1840ss benefit of handwashing, the students and the leadership continued to resist Semmelweiss’ innovation. This eventually led to Semmelweiss leaving the hospital. Once he was gone, the handwashing stopped, and the death rate soared again. However, the doctors did not care as long as they did not have to wash their hands like midwives.

Handwashing was not accepted as standard practice until the late 1860s. This means that this basic idea of cleanliness was ignored for about 20 years by the medical establishment. Semmelweiss was never able to see this happen as he died in the mid-1860s from an infection he received from cutting his finger during a surgical procedure.


A central lesson drawn from this story is how slow people are, despite their intelligence, training, and experience, to change. The doctors thought they knew what was best based on social conventions rather than evidence. They were more worried about looking like doctors (bloodstained clothes and dirty hands) than working to save lives. This is not unique to doctors as people often will fall victim to their pride. Fortunately, most of us do not deal with life and death daily, so our shortcomings do not have the same impact on people.

Christian Eijkman: Fighting Beriberi

Berberi disease was the scourge of settlers sent to Asia by the Dutch East India Company. The mysterious illness led to general fatigue, inability to eat, heart weakness, paralysis, and death. Beriberi got its name from the locals and is translated as “cannot.”

At first, the Dutch East India Company contacted Robert Koch, the physician who did groundbreaking work on anthrax, to come to Asia and help. Koch claimed he was too busy and recommended his former student Christian Eijkman (1858-1930) to help with this problem.

Enter Eijkman

Eijkman, who was Dutch, was a part of a medical team that went to Java (Indonesia) to battle with beriberi in 1886. At this time, Germ theory was all the rage in the medical world, and many people thought that germs cause all disease. Eijkman came to Java with his assumption that there was some sort of microbe that was making everyone sick. Success would involve finding the microbe and eliminating it.

As Eijkman began to work, he noticed that the hospitals had clean beds and good food, with beriberi as a significant problem. Outside the hospital, the locals lived in squalid conditions with inadequate nutrition but no beriberi. Eijkman began to wonder what was the difference.

Eijkman looked at the water, blood samples, and even more closely at the food. After some time, the other doctors on the medical team with him left out of discouragement. Eijkman stayed behind. Money was becoming a problem, and he knew he could not stay much longer.

Enter the Chickens

Eijkman decided to conduct an experiment in which he would take blood from a beriberi patient and inject it into a chicken. Eijkman fully expected the chicken to develop the disease. However, the chicken did not get sick, to Eijkman’s surprise as this contradicted Germ theory. This led Eijkam to the conclusion that germs do not cause beriberi.

However, with time the chickens did actually get sick. Yet they also recovered, which furthered confuses, Eijkman. Eijkman asked the cook what did he feed the chickens. The cook replied that he usually feed them brown rice. During the week that the chickens were sick, he used white rice because all the brown was going. One week later, he switched back to brown rice, and that was when the chickens recovered.

Eijkman confirmed this observation with additional experiments. He also found that the locals ate brown rice while the settlers ate white rice. Something in the brown rice protected a person from beriberi that was lost when the rice was processed to be white.

Enter the Rejection

When Eijkman shared his results with the hospital, the leadership thought it was ridiculous. Everyone was convinced that only germs caused disease and not diet. Eijkman’s breakthrough was ignored for years before US doctors tried it in the Philippines with great success.

Further research found that the husk of rice contains a vitamin called thiamine. This vitamin was inadvertently removed when the rice was processed. Soon it was found that other diseases are caused by a lack of vital minerals and nutrients such as goiter,


For his hard work and persistence, Eijkman won the Nobel Prize in medicine. When he first made his discovery, it was mocked, but decades later, he received the highest award possible in his field.

Joseph Lister: Fight Against Infection

Joseph Lister (1827-1912) dreamed of becoming a physician. When he entered college in 1846, Lister saw the powerful effect that ether had on people who needed surgery. After this experience, Lister decided to focus specifically on becoming a surgeon.

During this time, surgery was still hazardous. Progress was being made in regards to the problems of pain during surgery. However, the main concern now was with an infection after surgery. Lister removed a simple mole from a man’s face before his wedding only to have the man die from an infection. This led Lister to question the benefits of surgery if death by infection was the result.


Infection at this time had reached almost epidemic proportions. Anywhere from 40-80% of surgery patients died from infections. Infections were so bad that one hospital was threatened with being burned to the ground if things did not improve. Many doctors still believed Galen that infection was good. They even went so far as to encourage the development of pus (a sign of infection).

Lister was seeking a solution, and he received insights from treating broken bones. Broken bones are either simple or compound. Simple fractures are broken bones that do not break through the skin. Compound fractures are broken bones that pierce the skin. Lister observed that people who suffered simple fractures rarely develop infections, while those who suffered compound fractures commonly developed infections.

Lister suspected that simple compound fractures lead to infection because the broken bones are exposed to germs in the air. This idea came from Louis Pasteur’s work in Germ Theory. Lister determined that if he can find a chemical that kills germs, he can save lives from infection.

Many Solutions

Lister, with the help of a friend, decided to try carbolic acid to kill germs. Soon, a boy came to his office with a compound fracture of his leg. Lister fixed the leg and applied the carbolic acid to the wound to prevent infection. Fortunately, the boy recovered, and there was no infection.

Carbolic acid was not Lister’s only innovation. He also washed his hands before surgery rather than after. In addition, when tying arteries, he would soak the string in carbolic acid before tying the arteries shut. When performing surgery, Lister never wore old blood-stained clothes but always clean white ones. Lister could even get hospitals to stop using old bandages and donated ones and only use sterile, fresh dressings. Many hospitals hated the cost of clean bandages.

Lister’s success at reducing infections was so impressive that many doctors thought he was lying. In the hospital with a fatality rate of 80%, when they adopted Lister’s method, they reduced the death rate to 0.5%. This naturally saved the hospital from being burned to the ground.

One innovation that was made was boiling surgical tools rather than dipping them in carbolic acid. Lister tried this and stated that it didn’t matter as much the method as long as the germs were killed. Regardless, Lister’s methods created a new form of surgery called antiseptic surgery.

Carbolic acid was terrific, but it still had problems. For example, it was harsh on the skin even though it was a mild acid. Chemists came up with new solutions. Joseph Lawrence developed one antiseptic that killed germs without harming human flesh. He named it Listerine in honor of Joseph Lister.


Lister is considered by many to be one of the most excellent surgeons of all time. His contributions lay in his revolutionary insight into saving human life in a reasonable, cost-effective way. His impact is still felt to this day whenever someone has to face the stress of surgery.

William Morton and Anesthesia

William Morton (1819-1868) was a New Englander who, as a boy, wanted to be a doctor. However, he was poor, and this dream became unrealistic financially. Therefore, Morton switched his goal to becoming a dentist. He soon married but kept his ambition of becoming a doctor one day.

From Dentistry to Medicine

As a dentist, Morton developed one of the best sets of false teeth of his day. The only problem was that in order to use the false teeth, he had to pull all the teeth in someone’s mouth. Naturally, people did not like this idea, not so much because they loved all of their rotten teeth, but because they did not want to experience all of the pain of losing so many teeth at once. Rather than thinking his false teeth was a terrible idea, Morton began to look for a way to lessen the pain medically so he could pull teeth.

From the money he made as a dentist, Morton went to medical school. He enrolled at Harvard medical school. While at the school, Morton witness an amputation. During the surgery, the patient was writhing and screaming in agony. This was disconcerting for many students, including Morton. This experience convinced Morton to focus not just on painless dental surgery but to remove pain from all surgeries.


Morton’s first attempt at anesthesia was with ether. Through the help of a friend Charles Jackson, he quickly realized that diethyl ether was the best choice for putting people to sleep. Morton experiment on animals and finally on himself to see if the gas would work. Next, Morton used the gas to put a patient asleep while pulling a tooth. Morton then proceeded to pull the tooth out, and the patient was shocked to see that the tooth was removed while he was unconscious.

Morton’s next goal was to use his methods on actual surgery. To do this, he had to convince the head of the Massachusetts General Hospital to use ether. The doctor was concerned about his reputation if something went wrong but granted permission.

The Operation & End

On the day of the operation, Morton put the patient to sleep with ether, and the doctor was able to perform the surgery without a problem. When the patient awoke, he said he felt no pain. With this success, the practice of anesthesia spread all over the USA and Europe.

Morton patented his idea but never really receive compensation. The actual process was easy to copy, and many doctors did it without permission. In addition, one of Morton’s friends, Charles Jackson, claimed that he invented Morton’s method. This battle with a former friend cause Morton to spend most of his time proving that he was the inventor of this method.

The stress of this battle took a toll on Morton’s health, and he would die from a stroke. His enemy Jackson would suffer a similar break down in his mental health. Thus was the tragic end to two men who made a significant contribution to medicine.

Steps Towards Anesthesia

We will take a look at the history of pain and how doctors try to nullify this problem through various procedures. In particular, we will look at two pioneers in this work who are Humphrey Davy and James Simpson.

Pain has always been a pain when doctors have tried to treat patients. At one point, doctors tried opium to deaden the pain. Opium worked but would often leave the patient addicted to the drug, which was not feasible. Other doctors tried alcohol. Alcohol did not work either when the surgery or procedure began, and the patient was screaming in agony.

The next approach involved speed. The faster the doctor could cut and pull, the better. Before anesthesia, surgeries often lasted less than 5 minutes, and some doctors could cut off an entire leg in less than a minute. Naturally, complex operations were impossible under such circumstances. At this point, it was clear that whether drugs, alcohol, or speed was used, an alternative was needed to help patients with pain during medical procedures.

Humphrey Davy

Many doctors in the 18th century believed that various gases could help patients deal with pain. This lead to the development of pneumatic hospitals. This is where a young man named Humphrey Davy worked as a teenager in England. After being exposed to the power of gases as a teenager, Davy became a druggist before switching entirely to chemistry.

As a chemist, Davy worked for the physician Thomas Beddoes to develop new gases. This was both challenging and dangerous because Davey had a foolish habit of smelling his new gases rather than testing them on animals first. Such a practice as this nearly killed him several times. Eventually, he would become disable and almost blind from his careless experiments.

Despite his disregard for safety, one of Davy’s discoveries was what we call today laughing gas or nitrous oxide. Davy gave talks and lectures on his work and helped him to become somewhat famous in England.

Davy suspected that his laughing gas might be useful for surgery. This turned out to be false as laughing gas was not strong enough. However, dentists have used laughing gas for pulling teeth as the gas is a strong enough sedative for that kind of procedure. The goal of painless surgery was partially solved, but further help was needed to complete this mission.

James Simpson

The next step in this journey was taken by James Simpson, another young man from England. Growing up poor, Simpson’s family invested everything in him to go to college and medical school. Eventually, not only was Simpson a doctor, but he also was a college lecture of medicine.

Simpson heard that in the US, doctors were using ether as an anesthetic. Simpson tried this but had problems. Ether did not act the same from patient to patient, it smelled terrible and was highly explosive or flammable.

To deal with these problems, Simpson switched to chloroform. Chloroform solved all of Simpson’s problems. It was consistent in how it acted, had a sweet smell, and was not explosive or flammable. Despite this, many resisted Simpson’s innovations, and he had to work hard to persuade them.

However, the battle for an anesthetic was not over. Chloroform had other problems besides those of ether. For example, chloroform is carcinogenic. In addition, some people suffer heart attacks when they breathe it. Therefore, the journey continued in finding a cure for pain.

William Harvey: Blood Circulation

William Harvey (1578-1657) was an influential doctor whose main contributions came through his work in the circulatory system of the body. In this post, we will take a brief look at his life.

Life as a Student

William Harvey was an English man who decided as a young man that he wanted to be a doctor. This desire led him to Padua, Italy, where he studied medicine. During Harvey’s studies, Galileo was also a teacher at the same university. Some of Galileo’s views towards science would have a strong influence on Harvey.

For example, Galileo insisted that experiments were the way to learn about anything. This was during a time when people would blindly obey authority in many matters. The authority of the past was not the final answer. People needed to explore for themselves. Harvey applied these ideas that Galileo had in the non-living science in the medical sciences.

During his studies, Harvey read all the works of the great physicians of the past, such as Hippocrates, Galen, and most recently, Vesalius. Vesalius mentions Galen’s mistakes, yet doctors still clung to Galen in matters that had not been questioned.

Some of the errors that doctors clung to include the ideas that veins carried blood away from the heart, the liver made blood, blood ebbed and flowed like the ocean in the body, and that the blood caused the heart to beat. This was all based on speculation rather than observation through experiments.

As a student, Harvey attended many dissections. During these demonstrations, he was allowed to see the veins, arteries, and heart. Inside the veins are little trap doors that help with the flow of blood. However, Harvey noticed that these doors were on the wrong side if blood was supposed to flow to the heart.

Life as a Doctor

After finishing medical school, Harvey did several experiments involving blood circulation. In these experiments, he would tie off veins and arteries in the body. His conclusion from this was that veins carried blood to the heart, and arteries carried blood away from the heart. In addition, Harvey concluded that blood was reused and not created by the liver.

When Harvey shared his results, not too many people seemed to care. People did not see how this knowledge would help with the prevention of disease. Doctors at this time did not know that understanding circulation was the key to many forms of disease. Harvey demonstrated this when he tied off the arteries to a tumor on a person. With the loss of blood, the tumor withered away.

One question Harvey was never able to answer was how blood flowed from arteries to veins. This question was answered a few years before Harvey’s death thanks to the use of a microscope that discovered tiny blood vessels called capillaries.

During his life, Harvey was often attacked by other doctors for his discoveries. These critics were never able to prove that Harvey was wrong; instead, they quoted Galen as the final word. Despite this, Harvey became the King of England’s physician and was elected president of the College of Physicians even though he turned this down.


Curiosity may be one of the most essential traits of innovation. Authority is not wrong; however, it can be abused and lead to people sacrificing their responsibility to think for themselves. Harvey was an individual who decided he would see for himself if what others said was true.

Ambroise Pare and Modern Surgery

For most of the history of Western medicine, doctors rarely performed surgeries themselves, especially among the professors. This is probably surprising to many. However, there was a belief that manual labor (work with your hands) was beneath an educated thinker. A thinker’s job was to think about how to solve a problem.

The people who did the majority of surgeries were the barbers. Today barbers do not do surgeries. However, barbers were especially popular for minor surgeries, and the red and white you see in front of a barbershop represents the red of blood and the white f bandages.

One barber who had a tremendous influence on medicine and surgery was Ambroise Pare (1510-90). Pare was from France and was raised in a poor family. He received a basic education and became a barber’s assistant with the goal of becoming a doctor.

Medical School & Disappointment

At the age of 19, Pare went to Paris to study medicine. Whoever, his dream was crushed when he was unable to pass the entrance exam. The exam was in Greek and Latin, and these were languages Pare did not learn as a child as his poor background did not allow for this.

Disappointed, Pare became a barber-surgeon at a hospital. The conditions were terrible, with low lighting and ventilation. Professors would bring their students there to see applied medicine, with most students eager to leave with a dream of treating the rich when they graduated. However, Pare gained a tremendous amount of practical experience and was beginning to learn when teachers were right and wrong about the body.

During War

During one of the many wars that France was involved in, Pare became a surgeon. The practice of the time was to pour boiling oil on gunshot wounds. This could burn a wounded man alive like fried chicken. However, it was considered the best treatment. Pare did this until he ran out of oil. With the oil gone, he made his own concoction of egg yolk, oil of roses, and turpentine. This mixture was much more successful than the burning oil solution that was standard practice.

Another innovation with Pare was amputations. Surgeons had no problem removing limbs from people without thought to the pain caused. After butchering the patient, a hot iron was applied to stop the bleeding. Often this alone would kill a person who had survived losing an arm or leg. Pare decided to use silk thread to close the wound, which would spare the patient the added pain of the hot iron. The soldiers loved Pare for his approach to medicine, while the real doctors resented his work.

Pare combined all of his practical knowledge into a book. However, he struggled to get it published because real doctors despised him because of his fame. Even a law stated that no book on medicine could be published until doctors from the University of Paris approved. It took four years, but when the book was published, it was highly popular.


Par was a self-made man. He lacked the formal education of a doctor but made up for it through practical experience helping people who were hurt. In the end, the practical experience was more valuable as Pare was able to see the discrepancies between theory and practice.

Medicine After the Roman Empire

The age of the Greeks and Romans was, in many ways, a golden era for scientific improvement due in part to the stability that was allowed during these two empires. Naturally, there was still instability, but relatively speaking, the Greeks and Romans’ instability was nothing compared to what was to come.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was difficult for scholars and doctors to focus exclusively on scientific advancement. This is not to say that there were no advancements. Instead, the point is that living in a world of small kingdoms, with barbarian invasions, and rampant disease made it hard to focus on scientific curiosity.

Literacy was one skill that declined considerably. It was common even for monarchs, such as Charlemagne, to lack literacy skills. Great libraries, like the one in Alexandria, Egypt, was also destroyed, leaving behind lost knowledge that had to be perhaps rediscovered in the future.

Among the books that did survive, such as writings by Galen Hippocrates, these books became the final authority on medical care. Remember that the instability of the times and the difficulty of obtaining books made it too challenging to consider questioning these two great authors.

Ancient Beliefs

Hippocrates believed that the purpose of the brain was to cool the blood. I’m afraid that’s not right; most of the body’s heat is lost through the head. In addition, the word “artery” is loosely translated as “carrying air” and the etymology of the term has nothing to do with blood. Lastly, Greeks did not believe in dissecting bodies, which may have been the source of Hippocrates speculating.

The Romans shared the Greeks’ views on dissection. However, Galen did at least dissect animals to learn about the anatomy of living things. However, Galen believed that disease was caused by an imbalance of four vital fluids: phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood. By returning these fluids to their proper balance, a person would recover. The application of this was bloodletting, in which doctors bleed people to death to bring the fluids back into balance. This is the procedure that is believed to have killed the United States’ first president, George Washington.

Middle Ages

Even though Galen encouraged physicians to study for themselves, this was generally ignored, as mentioned earlier. By the 1500s, famous medical teachers such as Jacobus Sylvius would teach students about medicine by reading aloud Galen’s writings. By this time, dissection was allowed, but it wasn’t the teacher who did the cutting of the body but rather an assistant. The teacher’s job was to continue reading the book aloud.

There were several times when the readings of Galen did not agree with the results of the dissection. For example, there were discrepancies in the number of lobes of the liver and the number of breast bone segments. Whenever such disagreement s accord Sylvius would ignore them. We have to remember that Hippocrates and Galen were considered the most outstanding physicians of their time. Even today, the tops of any field are not questioned as much as they should be.


Change is something that many people struggle with. We all have our way of doing something and generally don’t want to change even when the benefits are apparent. Therefore, it may be unreasonable to criticize the lack of progress in understanding the body when doctors lived in a context of instability and a loss of large amounts of knowledge. When things are precarious, and there is no time for curiosity, people often will stick with tried and true approaches for the security it gives them.

Galen: Physician of Rome

Galen was a famous medical doctor during the Roman empire. He was born in the mid 2nd century in Pergamum, Asia Minor (Modern day Turkey). During his life, he spent time in many different parts of the Roman empire. We will now take a brief look at his life and influence.

Becoming a Doctor

During Galen’s life, the Roman empire had laws against dissecting human bodies. The reasons for this are not clear but may have something to do with the rise of Christianity. Some even believe that surgery was illegal, as well. In this context, Galen moved to Alexandria to study medicine.

Alexandria, Egypt, was a Roman city, which means that dissection was still not permissible. Galen made up for this by dissecting animals such as pigs, goats, and even apes. After completing his studies in Alexandria, Galen returned home to work as a doctor for gladiators. For several years, Galen developed practical experience in helping people with serious injuries.


Galen’s next trip was working in Rome. While in Rome, he continued his studies while also writing books about medical practice. It was while he was in Rome that Galen first began to experience fame for his medical knowledge.

Another doctor in Rome was having problems with his fingers. No treatment he was receiving made a difference for him; out of frustration, he called Galen. Galen concluded that his fingers’ issue was because of a problem with the nerves in his neck. It appears that the sick doctor had fallen from his chariot, injuring his neck. Galen knew from his experience with dissecting animals that neck treatment would alleviate the finger problems.

After treating the doctor with finger problems, Galen became famous. He became so renowned that the Roman Emperor made Galen his doctor. Naturally, other doctors were highly jealous of Galen because of his success. This was further exacerbated by Galen’s cocky, over-confidence in himself.


Galen was a prodigious author with over 80 books still in existence today. His medical work was trailblazing and highly authoritative for several hundred years. People believed everything Galen said because of who Galen was. It wasn’t until the Renaissance, over 1,000 later, that people began to openly disagree with Galen and teach medicine differently.

Galen’s influence was so strong that even when evidence was contrary to his views, doctors and teachers would still sick to Galen’s position. Naturally, this slowed and stalled developments in medicine for a long time in ways that may have cost lives.

Galen’s problem may not have been his ignorance but rather the restrictions under which he worked. Since dissecting humans was illegal many of Galen’s conclusions about medicine were from examining animals and not people. This difference in anatomy is the made source of Galen’s faulty findings.


Galen was a trailblazer for his time, which helped define what it means to be a doctor. Through his example, millions of students have gone forward to help and heal those in need. Though he made mistakes like all of us, he has also been praised for his hard work to help.

Egypt and Hippocrates

Many things can be said about the marvels of modern medicine. However, we will take a trip to the past and look at some of the origins of how medicine is practiced today. In particular, we will look briefly at ancient Egypt and its medicine and the life of the Greek doctor Hippocrates.

Egyptian Medicine

Many of the ideas of medicine can be traced back to ancient Egypt. One of the first known physicians in history was the Egyptian Imhotep. Imhotep was not only a physician, but he also was an astronomer, politician, and architect. Some of his work in architecture includes designing the first pyramids of Egypt.

Unlike medical doctors of today who are worried primarily about keeping their patients alive and healthy, Egyptian doctors were focused on preserving the bodies of those who were dead. Egyptian culture was obsessed with the afterlife, and this created a market in which doctors would go to great lengths to preserve the body. This explains the development of mummification and the mummies that are still found to this day. Strangely, medicine during this time was focused on death rather than life.

Due to the pioneering work in medicine in Egypt, the country began to attract people from all over the world who wanted to study medicine there. Among the people who came to Egypt were the Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen.


Hippocrates was a Greek physician born during the 5th century BC. Early in his life, he traveled to Egypt to study medicine. After his studies, Hippocrates spends some time as a traveling teacher before returning to Athens.

Hippocrates’ methods of treating patients were radically different from his peers. During his life, there was a large amount of superstition in treating disease. It was common for physicians to blame evil spirits, demons, and gods for illness. Treatments included making a sacrifice at a temple and spending the night there to be cured.

Hippocrates views were different for him disease had a natural cause. In other words, if you can find what is making a person sick, you can cure the disease. The practical outflow of this was as simple as asking the patient what kind of symptoms they were experiencing—other approaches included nutrition, rest, and cleanliness. Many of the ideas are still practice and also considered common sense today.

Hippocrates was also famous for his integrity. It was common during his time for doctors to be bribed to hurt people. However, Hippocrates apparently never agreed to this. He also would occasionally help people for free. His views on ethics were eventually summarized in the Hippocratic Oath, which lays out ethical behavior for medical doctors.


Imhotep may have been the first, but Hippocrates was one of the most influential physicians of all time. He is called by many the “Father of Medicine” due to his influential work in the medical world.