Medicine through time

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Overview of medicine and treatment c1350 to present day

For a larger range of examples of continuities and changes in the way that medicine has been viewed and practised over time, look at the Timelines section of the website.

Middle Ages

Circa 1350 beliefs about medicine were quite varied. Some people believed that disease was caused by god, others looked at the movement of the planets whilst other physicians referred to the works of Ancient philosophers and based their practice on the theory of the four hummours, the theory of opposites or on common sense cures. Remember that in 1350, people did not know what caused disease.

People who were ill in 1350 would have had a number of options available to them. A rich lord could consult an expensive and well trained doctor who would be familiar with the works of Hippocrates, Galen and others. For the poor majority though this option would not be available. They could look to 'wise women' or perhaps make use of medical services provided by a local monastery. For people requiring surgery, the options were dangerous and limited. There were some trained surgeons but for the majority of people they would have been reliant on a barber surgeon.

The responsibility for health lay very much with the individual. The government passed some laws about keeping towns clean but these were limited and were often reactionary in nature. Most medical knowledge was spread by word of mouth or through the church. Books were available but as they were hand written copies they were very expensive and only availabe to the wealthy.

How and why has medicine changed since 1350?

In the Renaissance period people began to challenge accepted views. The mistakes made by Galen were noted and people became more willing to challenge the teachings of the church. This led to improved understanding of the way in which the body worked but didn't really change the way that ailments would be identified or treated as the cause of disease had yet to be identified. As in the middle ages the type of care available to people was largely down to who they were, where they lived and what beliefs they held. Even the wealthiest of people (Charles II, for example) would have doctors making use of a combination of natural and supernatural remedies.

The major changes in the way that people view and treat disease came in the 18th and 19th century. Vaccination against smallpox was an early breakthrough, though nobody yet knew why the vaccine worked. Soon though the 'germ' was identified and the cause of different diseases began to be identified and vaccinations produced. Germ Theory also led to improved understanding of how to prevent the spread of disease and public health initiatives by government became viewed as being more neccessary.

In the twentieth century we have seen further developments and changes. Technology has enabled us to identify growths - X-Rays, MRI scans etc. so some diseases can be identified at a very early stage. We also have regular screening for some cnditions and government investment means that childrens health is closely monitored.

Whilst scientific breakthroughs have clearly changed the way that diseases are identified and trew ilness. are not the only way in which people view illness. People continue to look to god for help through prayer and pilgrimages; people still refer to relatives for medical advice and there continues to be a range of remedies that are provided by family or friends based on common knowledge or word of mouth (on a simple level, think dock leaves for nettle stings).






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