The History of Medicine: An Oratory

The Wound Man: surgical diagram which first appeared in 14th & 15th century Europe

It’s 200 AD. You’ve awoken to find your body covered in boils and blisters, and you’re hardly able to function. You rush to the village’s local medic where, after he consults his planetary charts and Bible, gives you the mysterious diagnosis: Since you are born in the month of June, your symptoms are attributed to the alignment of Neptune and Uranus. And since you stole an apple from the grocer last week, you were not loyal to your religious beliefs and now must pay the price. The only way to treat your symptoms is to visit the church everyday to erase your sins and receive bloodletting twice a week. You accept this explanation but as the medic sticks slimy leeches on your painful boils that begin to drain and suck all of fluids from your body, you scream in agony and can’t help but think to yourself: Isn’t there a better way?

Well in fact now there is, but only through centuries of medical and health advancement. Obviously if treated today, medical specialists would be able to immediately acknowledge these symptoms as the viral illness smallpox and would simply administer an antibiotic to kill the disease… instead of accidentally killing patients through misconceived remedies.

Now as an aspiring cardiologist, I could not help but immerse myself in the intriguing world of medical innovation. You can imagine that, in order to get from Point A, where we were in medicine before Christ, to Point B, our critical understanding of health today, humans could not just plug in some googlemap directions and follow the given path. They depended on pioneering minds, bold discoveries, and creative thinking to guide them and support earth’s everchanging society. I know that might sound like just a bunch of mumbo jumbo to you, but words truly cannot convey how dramatically world health perspectives have shifted and how exponentially our understanding continues to proliferate. I mean seriously, how do you think that we can now view proteins on the nanoscale and safely shoot radiation at people’s bodies to break up a tumor? INNOVATION. Ha, it’s kind of funny to think that we look back centuries ago and consider medical treatments of the time to be witchcraft when really, the people of that time would’ve looked back at us and seen a completely different superhuman species altogether!

So now after considering all of that, let’s get to the 3 primary aspects of medical innovation: Ok first off, we will journey back in time to rediscover the timeline of medical advancements and understand just how we have built on ideas over the centuries to reach the peak we stand on today. Now secondly, hang on let me make sure no one here is using incantations to heal their wounds or trying to align the stars to fix their broken leg right? No one? ok great because yeah, there are obviously certain practices of the past which we know to be ludicrous but have nonetheless served as really fun aspects of entertainment (my magical Harry Potter fans know what I’m talking about!) While we have indeed drawn the line between real medicine and fantasy, you’d be surprised at just how many commonalities are present in health understanding from then and now and what ideas we have preserved over the years. And finally, though I keep praising just how advanced and wonderful medicine is today, we still have bounds and leaps to go in our understanding in order to reach humanity’s ultimate goal: to ensure the maximum longevity of mankind.

So let’s begin about 4000 years ago (Point A), back when pioneering doctors were just beginning to peel back the first layers of medicine. Now though illness was strongly attributed to ancient gods and karma, over 200 diseases had been acknowledged and recorded in medical texts. It was also around this time when human anatomy was explored for the first time through ancient mummification and preliminary surgeries. Simple herbal remedies and ointments like sunscreen were also invented in this era, as well as the age old practices of cauterization and bloodletting (ouch!). Not only that, but the key principles of preserving body health through diet, sleep, exercise, and moderation were followed in the years BC, an aspect of medicine that is in jeopardy today around the world (Thanks McDonald’s (sarcasm)). These were incredible discoveries considering the primitive tools of that time, but unfortunately the path to Point B would be meet a bump in the road and health advancements would remain stagnant for centuries…

Not to worry though, let’s zoom ahead to around 400 AD where none other than Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine himself was peeling even further into the mysteries of medicine. While his discoveries focused on preventative medical treatments, he also paved the way to erasing some of the numerous misconceptions surrounding disease causes, and instead began diagnosing illnesses through urine and blood analyses. Not to say Hippocrates succeeded in completely eliminating medical stigmas, because he actually promoted blood letting through his reasoning that the body stayed healthy through its balance of its 4 bodily fluids or humors, and therefore diseases could be cured through removing excess blood. He could not be more incorrect, but you can’t blame the guy for using his imagination!

But anyways, as Point B looms closer, we begin to see the exponential increase of health discoveries where, just a few centuries after Hippocrates, thorough anatomical and bodily functions were understood and began to make their way all around the world. Humans came across the revelation that WOW! A squishy organ in my head called the “brain” controls all of my thoughts and actions… and oh my! There’s this 20 ft long organ in my body that works with my stomach to break down food. Now you can imagine that from these understandings around 1200, medical discoveries began to really skyrocket!

While communication between foreign countries increased, so did their unity and sharing of health discoveries. Around the 14–1600s, the Dutch made the groundbreaking connection between medicine and technology through the invention of the microscope. Using this tool, both bacteria and red blood cells were viewed for the first time. Not far away, the English were advancing cardiovascular studies where the systemic circulatory system and blood flow mechanisms were discovered.

Now as we reach the final stretch of our A to B drive, we come across the key preventive discovery of all time: VACCINATIONS. Yes, it is quite incredible to know that nearly 800 years after smallpox 1st propagated, this viral condition could only be prevented in the 1700s, becoming the 1st successful vaccination created. Other viral and bacterial illnesses, however would have to wait just a few more decades…

So let’s Stamp the gas pedal and Fast forward only a few decades to the 1800s when the stethoscope, blood transfusions, anesthetics, and nasty old GERMS became global tools, practices, and discoveries. Not only did medical innovation progress, but so did humanity’s acceptance of gender equality. If it weren’t for those strong women doctors in the 19th century, my dreams of becoming a cardiologist would be nonexistent (So thanks, Elizabeth Blackwell!)

Ah! Our journey finally reaches the golden age of medicine. In the 1900s, vaccinations for cholera, typhus, tetanus, rabies, and so many other ailments became available. X-rays were invented, which led to internal imaging and in depth diagnosis. It was also during these years that the accidental yet pivotal discovery of Flemming’s penicillin led to various antibiotic innovations. Just stop to consider that… After this entire medical journey, it was only a half century ago among the that the flu and mumps could be cured after contraction.

In the last 50 years, so much knowledge and advancement has been made that Point B is just around the corner. DNA, cancer mechanisms, heart transplants, genetic cloning, encapsulated drugs, and HIV were all crucial discoveries made just before the 21st century. In just the last 20 years, targeted drug delivery and cancer treatments were optimized, as well as the innumerable tools that have enabled deep biological understanding. Surgeries were made less invasive and stem cells became a focal point of research for self-healing therapies. Not happy with that long nose or bulging chin? Don’t fret because medical innovation has made face transplants and surgeries possible (though I’m sure you don’t need it!) Nanotechnology also began and is continuing to emerge for drug delivery and in vivo disease manipulation, and may soon be able to treat previously intangible diseases.

So with that, my friends, we finally reach Point B. What a ride! Our route, with its many twists and turns could not have been more dynamic right? Well actually, despite medicine’s drastic changes, numerous similarities exist between then and now that have merely been buried under the fancy tools and treatments of today. Because when you look at it, people of the past knew that internal interferences brought about disease like we do now, but they just didn’t go about treatment in the logical antibiotic manner. Early humans also understood the importance of behavior and habits in body longevity and defined principles to achieve optimal health that we are still striving to follow. And Our fancy salves & creams for wounds are really just advanced versions of primitive herbal remedies. Urine and blood analyses for disease diagnosis are still prominent today all the way from the early ADs. Now whether you see the connection or not, the point is that, like rungs of a ladder, we have depended on those before us to climb higher and venture into undiscovered medical areas.

So considering that point, we are about to climb a new rung and journey into an even more exciting realm of health innovation. And don’t be fooled, humanity still has thousands of rungs to go before we attain our goal of sustaining human life to the maximum potential. For example, society is working towards eliminating the stigma behind mental illness and are beginning to view disorders like anxiety and depression in a new scientific and treatable light. Furthermore, scientists are still working towards achieving reliable remission methods for untreatable ailments like cancer and Alzheimer’s in hopes that of one day, annihilating these complications altogether. Auto-immune diseases are also being promoted in research so that future generations will not be debilitated by these complex ailments.

But with these scientific projections aside, let us take a second to acknowledge the innumerable privileges and access we have to these health treatments through our affluent American lives. Unfortunately, however, there are millions and millions of individuals around the world that cannot even access hospitals or simple drugs. Imagine contracting a viral illness through drinking dirty water and then not being able to take an antibiotic…. This has to end, and so our next rung to climb must also include extending medicinal remedies across the globe to treat unprivileged communities.

Now through my words, I know that I have not convinced you to fall in love with medicine and dedicate every minute of your life to going beyond Point B. I also understand that not every one of you is passionate about medicine the way I am or even care about what I have been talking about for the last 9 minutes. But let me at least convey to you this: WE ARE THE FUTURE! Our choices, our boldness and courage to take risks, our desire to discover, and our heart to improve lives is what will determine the future of society. In the case of medicine, we need to encourage young minds to use their imagination to development novel outlooks on health and innovation that can save and improve future generations. But this advice extends beyond just medicine. It matters not whether you are passionate about the environment, engineering, math, or even juggling in a circus. Whatever your dreams, you, we, must strive to push the boundaries to achieve our goals. Medical innovation serves as a prominent example of what human teamwork and determination can attain. As Malala Yousafzai once said, “Let us make our future now, and let us make our dreams tomorrow’s reality.”

  • Written and Delivered by Prathysha Kothare, Allentown, PA