Medicine hasn’t always been the particular science that we know it has today, it took hundreds of thousands of years of learning and mistake-making for our species to be as knowledgeable as we are about the intricacies of medicine and biology. There were not always such things as London trials, or medical trials that we see all over the world today. Here are our top five facts that you never knew about the history of medicine.

Prehistoric surgery

There is strong evidence that our species have been practicing surgery on each other for longer than one would expect. Ephraim George Squier discovered an ancient Mexican skull with holes in its frontal lobe that had been intentionally made whilst the person was still alive. This ancient practice has been give the name ‘trepanning’. Scientists speculate that our ancient ancestors were trying to rid the body from wicked spirits that they believed had taken hold of the person. It is also possible that they used this method as a remedy for fractures. Practitioners could have realised that over the course of an infection, dead bone would more than likely disintegrate, removing the fragments manually, therefore, would definitely have been worth a try.

The earliest named doctors were women

Saqqara is an archaeological site not far from Cairo and used to be the city of Memphis, which is still home to some of the oldest buildings in the entire world, including the pyramid of Djoser. It is by this pyramid that a tomb holds the image of Merit Ptah, the first female doctor even to be known by name. Hieroglyphs describe her role as ‘chief physician’ in approximately 2,700 BC and proves that ti was possible for women to hold high-status medical roles in Ancient Egypt. Another women doctor was also immortalised in the tomb of her son, Akhet-Hetep, a high priest. She was known as the overseer of female physicians, which suggest that women doctors were not that rare and a respected part of ancient Egypt society.

Smoking medicine

Not many people recognise the ‘cigarette’ and ‘medicine’ as being able to work together, but nineteenth-century medical cigarettes for asthma were part of a long history of inhalation medicine that is still used in modern day inhalers. Physicians realised that smoking datura stramonium gave relief to people with asthma. It was first smoked in pipes but was also released with the introduction of cigars and cigarettes. Doctors even recommended them as a convenient way of inhaling the drug. Although, in the 20th century the spasmodic model of asthma gave way to the concept of allergic information and made smoking less relevant. New drugs such as ephedrine gave a different option to the possibly hallucinogenic effects of the stramonium. As the health effects of smoking tobacco became more and more obvious, medicated cigarettes became less and less popular – but, for a while, stramonium had played an important role in bringing relief to those struggling to breathe.

Maggot Therapy

Maggots are the larvae of a fly, and can be mostly found or seen in gone-off meat. As horrible as they may sound, you might not expect that they have been used to treat wounds for hundreds of years. They only feed on tissue that is dead and leave healthy tissue alone. You will have found maggots commonly used on the battlefields of the Napoleonic wars, the Civil War, and World War I to clean soldiers’ wounds. The revolting treatment became extremely unpopular after penicillin was invented but it has lately started to reclaim a bit of respect. Since some forms of bacteria are resilient to antibiotics, maggots are sometimes the best option available. Consider it a medical link to your military forebears.


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