What is medicine? How did it came about into the world – who first discovered it? The history of medicine shows how societies have changed in their approach to illness and disease from ancient times to the present. Early medical traditions include those of Babylon, China, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Hippocratic Oath was written in ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE, and is a direct inspiration for oaths of office that physicians swear upon entry into the profession today. In the Middle Ages, surgical practices inherited from the ancient masters were improved and then systematized in Rogerius’s The Practice of Surgery. Universities began systematic training of physicians around 1220 CE in Italy.

Invention of the microscope was a consequence of improved understanding, during the Renaissance. Prior to the 19th century, humourism (also known as humoralism) was thought to explain the cause of disease but it was gradually replaced by the germ theory of disease, leading to effective treatments and even cures for many infectious diseases. Military doctors advanced the methods of trauma treatment and surgery. Public health measures were developed especially in the 19th century as the rapid growth of cities required systematic sanitary measures. Advanced research centres opened in the early 20th century, often connected with major hospitals. The mid-20th century was characterized by new biological treatments, such as antibiotics. These advancements, along with developments in chemistry, genetics, and radiography led to modern medicine. Medicine was heavily professionalized in the 20th century, and new careers opened to women as nurses (from the 1870s) and as physicians (especially after 1970).

Although there is little record to establish when plants were first used for medicinal purposes (herbalism), the use of plants as healing agents, as well as clays and soils is ancient. Over time, through emulation of the behaviour of fauna, a medicinal knowledge base developed and passed between generations. Even earlier, Neanderthals may have engaged in medical practices. As tribal culture specialized specific castes, shamans and apothecaries fulfilled the role of healer. The first known dentistry dates to c. 7000 BC in Baluchistan where Neolithic dentists used flint-tipped drills and bowstrings. The first known trepanning operation was carried out c. 5000 BC in Ensisheim, France. A possible amputation was carried out c. 4,900 BC in Buthiers-Bulancourt, France.

The practice of medicine changed in the face of rapid advances in science, as well as new approaches by physicians. Hospital doctors began much more systematic analysis of patients’ symptoms in diagnosis. Among the more powerful new techniques were anesthesia, and the development of both antiseptic and aseptic operating theaters. Effective cures were developed for certain endemic infectious diseases. However the decline in many of the most lethal diseases was due more to improvements in public health and nutrition than to advances in medicine. Medicine was revolutionized in the 19th century and beyond by advances in chemistry, laboratory techniques, and equipment. Old ideas of infectious disease epidemiology were gradually replaced by advances in bacteriology and virology. The ABO blood group system was discovered in 1901, and the Rhesus blood group system in 1937, facilitating blood transfusion.

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During the 20th century, large-scale wars were attended with medics and mobile hospital units which developed advanced techniques for healing massive injuries and controlling infections rampant in battlefield conditions. During the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), General Pancho Villa organized hospital trains for wounded soldiers. Boxcars marked Servicio Sanitario (“sanitary service”) were re-purposed as surgical operating theatres and areas for recuperation, and staffed by up to 40 Mexican and U.S. physicians. Severely wounded soldiers were shuttled back to base hospitals. Canadian physician Norman Bethune, M.D. developed a mobile blood-transfusion service for frontline operations in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), but ironically, he himself died of blood poisoning. Thousands of scarred troops provided the need for improved prosthetic limbs and expanded techniques in plastic surgery or reconstructive surgery. Those practices were combined to broaden cosmetic surgery and other forms of elective surgery.

During the second World War, Alexis Carrel and Henry Dakin developed the Carrel-Dakin method of treating wounds with an irrigation, Dakin’s solution, a germicide which helped prevent gangrene. The War spurred the usage of Roentgen‘s X-ray, and the electrocardiograph, for the monitoring of internal bodily functions. This was followed in the inter-war period by the development of the first anti-bacterial agents such as the sulpha antibiotics.

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