What modern day medical practice has its roots in Ancient Egypt
The underlying principle of most medieval medicine dates back to the theory of humors. This principal dominated western medicine until the 19th century. We have come a long way since then, however there is some truth in the ancient thoughts and it resides still within the practice of homeopathy.
The theory stated that there were four principal fluids or humors within people. They are black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. These fluids were produced by various organs in the body, and in order to be healthy they had to be balanced.
I am reminded of a classic skit in the early days of Saturday Night Live called Barber of York with Steve Martin. In this parody skit, it was explained that the medieval barbers were the forerunners of today's men of medicine, and many of the techniques they developed are still practiced today. The skit was about of one such barber named Theodonic of York. At one point after examining a patient he said “Well, I'll do everything humanly possible. Unfortunately, we barbers aren't Gods. You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.” The skit continues with bloodletting rituals and skepticism from the local villagers. At the very end the barber says “Wait a minute. Perhaps she's right. Perhaps I've been wrong to blindly follow the medical traditions and superstitions of past centuries. Maybe we barbers should test these assumptions analytically, through experimentation and a "scientific method". Maybe this scientific method could be extended to other fields of learning: the natural sciences, art, architecture, navigation. Perhaps I could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth, a Renaissance! (he pauses and thinks for a minute) Naaaaaahhh!”
It is easy to see how a sacred science such as ancient medicine could be seen in such a satirical way. In modern times it seems very difficult to understand.
The theory of humors
It was originally thought that the humors released vapors which ascended to the brain and produced an individual's personal characteristics. These included physical, emotional and spiritual traits. By the examination of a person’s temperament, the state of the individual’s humor could be determined. For example, too much phlegm in the body was caused by lung problems and the body was attempting to restore a balance by removing it. Actually that makes a lot of sense.
All diseases supposedly resulted from an excess or deficit of one of these four humors. The concept started in ancient Egypt and then became more organized around 400 BC in Greece. From there it was made popular by the Romans. Even later, Muslim and Western European medical centers adapted the philosophy.
The belief was that each of these humors would wax and wane in the body, depending upon a person’s diet and level of activity at the time. The imbalance was considered dyscrasia and when in balance it was called eucrasia (homeostasis).
The term blood dyscrasia is still used in modern medicine to define an issue with the blood such as leukemia or hemophilia.
Hippocrates (460-370 BC) was the first to legitimize this theory and apply it to medicine He was also the first homeopath. He was taught the Grecian Law of Similars as he had a Pythagorean Teacher.
Hippocrates embraced the belief that disease resulted from an imbalance of the four humors and was influenced by outside forces. He felt that the goal of medicine was to build the patient’s strength. He also was one of the first to take into account not only a patient’s history, but that of the patient’s family. Up until then there was not a thought in regards to a genetic component to disease.
There is a famous quote of Hippocrates: “Omoia Omoiois Eisin Iamata” which could be translated “Similars cure Similars”. This is the exact theory of modern day homeopathy.
The word HOMEOPATHY is Greek and comes from two words. HOMEO which means similar and PATHY with means disease. The Greek root of pathy is pathisi which can also mean obsession, emotion, mania and feeling. It is easy to see how there was an emotional component to disease in ancient times.
From there, Galen (130-200AD) embraced the humor theory, however felt the humors were formed within the body and not dependent upon outer influences such as food and drink. He wanted to further the concept of treating disease by regulation of amount of humors in body.
In addition he emphasized the importance of temperaments. While often thought just to refer to a psychological or emotional reference, Galen used it to refer to a bodily response as well. For instance, he would describe a person’s temperament as a susceptibility to a disease as well as emotional behavior.
Again, there was a strong connection between the connections of the emotional as well as physical bodies.
Dr.Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) the father of modern Homeopathy, opposed the drawing off of the fluids and bloodletting. His aim was to cure by using a singular similar medicine that would create a quick, gentle and permanent cure.
He first observed the possibility from his experiments with cinchona bark. He saw that the effects he experienced from ingesting the bark were similar to the symptoms of malaria that he was trying to treat. He determined that the cure comes from treating disease with treatments that are similar in nature to what the symptoms are.
By using treatments to produce miniscule symptoms, it would stimulate the internal vital force, thereby neutralizing and expelling the original disease. This new artificial “disturbance” would naturally subside and disappear when the dosing ceased and a cure would be produced.
Take home message
I do not think I can possibly say it better than this.
“When you reflect that your own father had to take such horrible mixtures and other such medicines, and that you would be taking them today yourself, but for the introduction of Homoeopathy, which forced the old school doctor to stir around and learn something of a rational nature about his business you may honestly feel grateful that Homoeopathy survived the attempts of the allopaths to destroy it, even though you may never employ any physician but an allopath while you live.”
- Mark Twain.