Ancient Cultures

Precursors to medical systems and theories of disease were found in the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt between the fourth millennium b.c.e. and the first, which established connections between concepts of nature and religion, on the one hand, and views of sickness and health on the other. Parallels between Chinese, Tibetan, Indian, and Greek perceptions of sickness and health indicate that these cultures may have derived these ideas from the same sources. Ancient American cultures also shared similar perceptions.

For these cultures health and disease were physical as well as religious phenomena. Sickness was still associated with sin, even as empirical interpretation of health and disease began to spread. Egyptian papyri (2000-1500 b.c.e.), for example, describe the courses of various diseases and categorize them according to regions of the body. The papyri list causes, symptoms, and prognoses, as well as empirical interventions. Putrefaction within the body in the form of spoiled material (materia peccans) caused sickness; these substances had to be removed if the patient were to be cured. The Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century b.c.e.) describes monthly purifications in Egypt.

Dietetic, medicinal, and surgical interventions were used, and much attention was given to public health. The medicine of ancient cultures combined religious ritual with empirical treatment. The Babylonian code of Hammurabi (d. 1750 b.c.e.) contained the first list of surgical fees and penalties in the case of failure; each varied according to the social status of the patient.

The explanatory dimensions of medicine, such as symptomology, nosology (the classification of diseases), diagnosis, and etiology (the study of the causes of diseases), as well as clinical dimensions such as prognosis, therapy, and prevention, began to establish themselves in these centuries. The traditional healer became the professional doctor; specialization developed. In this era, empirical observation, causal explanation, magic, and faith coexisted in medical theory and practice.

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