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Home » 8th Season: 2020-2021 » 2020-2021 v.05 » Ancient Greek and Roman Medicine’s Influence on Modern Medicine

Ancient Greek and Roman Medicine’s Influence on Modern Medicine

By Cara Mulcahey, VI Form

Ancient Greek and Roman Medicine’s Influence on Modern Medicine

An elderly woman stumbles into a hospital’s waiting room. She is short of breath, feverish, and coughing uncontrollably. The hospital admits this woman, and a physician sees her. The physician may run a physical exam to check her oxygen saturation and breath sounds. This exam would also check her differential blood count, immunoglobulin levels, and sputum cultures. The physician may also ask for a chest CT to assess lung damage. These tests would indicate to the physician that this woman suffers from bronchiectasis. Bronchiectasis occurs when the bronchial tubes in the lungs are permanently damaged, widened, or thickened, enabling mucus and bacteria to accumulate in the lungs. This accounts for this woman’s difficulty breathing, as the mucus and bacteria were blocking her airways. With this diagnosis, the physician could treat the woman with chest physiotherapy to clear the mucus from the lungs, antibiotics, bronchodilators, medications, and oxygen therapy. She would leave with some relief and be able to live her life relatively normally.

But, what if this occurred over 2,000 years ago in ancient Greece? Ancient Greek physicians did not have access to fancy labs or equipment, such as CT machines, so could this woman receive treatment? The answer is yes. Although Greek physicians did not have the technology and knowledge modern physicians do, they were capable of diagnosing and treating patients. In this case, similar to a modern physician, the iatros (the Greek word for physician) would press his ear to the elderly woman’s back and listen to the sound of her breath. The iatros would hear “boiling inside [her chest] like vinegar,” which would lead him to diagnose correctly that the woman had fluid inside her lungs. Additionally, the iatros would notice the woman’s swollen fingers, which is a sign of lung disease. From this diagnosis, the iatros would prescribe the woman some medications to take and keep a close eye on her. Should her condition worsen, the iatros would drill a hole in her chest to drain some of the fluid. This procedure had numerous known risks, such as infection, which is why the iatros would try less-invasive treatments first. Overall, the woman would benefit from seeing the iatros, displaying that even though the iatros did not have access to modern technologies, he would be able to relieve some of her symptoms.

The earliest records of medicine come from Babylonia, Egypt, India, and China. Historians are able to study medicine from these ancient civilizations by examining drawings, bones, and surgical instruments. Initially, folk medicine was prominent. Folk medicine consisted of treating diseases with herbs and plants. Historians believe that ancient physicians used trial and error methods to deduce which plants and herbs had healing properties. Physicians utilized folk medicine and herbal remedies to treat common and mild illnesses, such as colds. However, these ancient civilizations linked more serious illnesses to supernatural origins, which physicians treated with incantations, potions, or spells. Therefore, the first physicians were primarily witches or sorcerers.

Click the image above to read Cara’s entire fellowship paper

Cara Mulcahey is a VI Form day student from Sudbury, Massachusetts. She enjoys studying biology and she hopes to be a doctor one day. In her spare time, she plays soccer. 


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