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Since the earliest times, people have probably suffered from sickness, injury, and disease. Others may have tried to help them by making them warm and comfortable and giving them herbs and potions to ease their suffering. This is how medicine began. Today, medicine is one of the biggest areas of science. Billions of pounds are spent every year on doctors, hospitals, medicinal drugs, operations, body-scanners and other amazing machines. But medicine can also be simple, for example, rest and good food can help the body to heal itself. As well as curing illness, medicine includes staying healthy and preventing disease.



Healers and physicians (doctors) have been around for thousands of years. Medicine was used in Ancient Egypt but it was very different then. It included saying prayers, worshipping gods and casting spells. The Egyptians also had various practical treatments, such as an oil made from acacia nuts, which was used to treat burns. One famous healer in ancient Egypt was Imhotep. He lived more than 4,700 years ago. As well as being a healer he was also a priest and became a god.


Hippocrates is the most famous medical person from ancient times. He lived in Ancient Greece about 2,400 years ago. With other physicians, he wrote about many kinds of diseases and how to treat them. Hippocrates probably also wrote some rules about how doctors should behave. For example, they should be polite and kind to their patients. They should listen carefully to the patient’s problems, and not discuss them with other people. Many doctors today still follow some of these guidelines, which are known as the Hippocratic Oath.

In Ancient Greece, cutting people open (dissection) to study the human body and illness was forbidden. About 1,850 years ago the physician Galen learned about the inside of the body as he treated wounded gladiators, and by dissecting animals including goats, pigs, and apes. Galen wrote many medical books. His books contained much information that was wrong, but Galen was so respected that physicians did not challenge his teachings for hundreds of years.


There were many other kinds of medicine in ancient times. In China, doctors were not allowed to dissect people, so they could not learn much about the human body. They could insert thin needles into various body parts, to relieve pain. This treatment is called acupuncture. In India, doctors were skilled at operations and were probably the first to carry out a type of plastic surgery on noses. In all these places, worship and religion were important in medicine. So were potions made from natural substances such as herbs, minerals from rocks, the body parts of animals and even animals’ blood or droppings.


From about the year ad 700, Arab people began to improve medicine and spread it across Africa, Asia and parts of Europe. Arab physicians had to learn medicine properly and take tests to show their knowledge. From about the year ad 1000 physicians and other experts set up the first Western medical school to train doctors, at Salerno in Italy. More medical schools followed across Italy, France, and England.


A great advance was the book On the Structure of the Human Body in 1543. It was produced in Padua, Italy, by Andreas Vesalius. While studying at the University of Padua he had been able to cut up dead bodies to see the parts inside and how they worked. His book helped to correct many of the errors made by earlier physicians, including Galen. Gradually, medicine became more scientific, using tests and experiments. For example, if a patient was given a medical drug the physician would check later to see whether it worked.


There was another important medical advance in 1628. It was made by an English doctor called William Harvey. His book Anatomical Essay on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals showed that the heart pumps the same blood round and round the body through the blood vessels. Before this book was written, people believed that blood was being made and used up all the time. This is an example of how medicine was becoming more scientific, based on tests and experiments rather than ancient traditions.


The newly invented microscope was being used in medicine around this time. It revealed the body’s tiny building blocks, called cells, and how these change in certain diseases. In the 19th century, microscope experts such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch discovered that tiny germs, such as bacteria, were the cause of diseases such as anthrax, tuberculosis (TB) and cholera.


In 1846 an American dentist, William Morton, showed how a chemical called ether could be used as an anaesthetic, to get rid of pain or put patients to sleep for a time. This allowed surgeons to carry out longer, more complicated operations. In the 1860s, British surgeon Joseph Lister described his use of germ-killing substances, known as antiseptics, for cleanliness during operations. This made surgery many times safer.


In 1796 Edward Jenner discovered that if a person caught cowpox, a mild illness, then afterwards that person was very unlikely to catch the much more dangerous smallpox. This was the beginning of the science of vaccination, which we still carry out today. It gives the body protection or immunity against various diseases.

Another great leap forward was the accidental discovery of antibiotic drugs by Alexander Fleming in 1928. These kill bacterial germs, which cause many diseases. The first antibiotic, penicillin, was mass-produced in the 1940s. These drugs have since saved millions of lives.



Mental illnesses affect a person’s mind and behaviour. Long ago such people have simply shut away as mad. From the late 19th century experts such as Sigmund Freud began to understand and treat these illnesses. They started the branch of medicine known as psychiatry.


In 1967 the world was amazed when surgeon Christiaan Barnard carried out a heart transplant. The heart of a person who had just died (the donor) was put into a patient whose own heart was diseased. Many kinds of transplants, including hearts, kidneys, and livers, are now common. Vast sums of money are also spent on research into new medical drugs. Newly discovered drugs must pass a number of safety tests and other checks before they can be taken by patients. Surgery and drugs are still the main types of medical treatments.

A new area is a genetic medicine. Genes are instructions, in the form of the chemical DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), for how the body grows and carries out its life processes. It may be possible to treat some diseases by changing a person’s genes. This is known as gene therapy.


Today the science of medicine is vast and complicated. Doctors learn about diseases, surgery and medical drugs. They learn how to examine a patient for problems such as coughs, swellings, and pains, which are called symptoms. The doctor may send samples of body parts or fluids, such as blood, to a medical laboratory for testing. Or the patient may attend a medical centre for tests such as X-rays and scans, to see inside the body.

From the symptoms and the test results, the doctor can identify the illness. This is called diagnosis. Then the doctor advises, or prescribes, treatment for the illness. This is the therapy. It can vary from medical drugs, or perhaps an operation, to talking about the problem or taking a rest.


In many countries, an ill person first sees a family doctor or general practitioner (GP). The GP has the overall knowledge of many common illnesses and can diagnose and treat most patients. The GP also advises on how to stay healthy and avoid disease. This is known as primary health care.

People with more complicated illnesses are usually sent (or “referred”) to specialist doctors at larger medical centres or hospitals. This is secondary health care. There are dozens of types of specialist doctors. Cardiologists are experts on the heart. Orthopaedic surgeons deal with bone and muscle problems. Neurologists treat disorders of the nerves and brain. Obstetricians are experts on pregnancy and childbirth. Radiologists specialize in X-rays and other ways of seeing inside the body.


Medicine involves many other people as well as doctors. Nurses look after patients, assist doctors and carry out some tests and treatments. Pharmacists are experts on medicines and drugs.

Modern medicine can be very scientific and technical. Some people are concerned that it only treats the disease, not the whole person. There are simpler, more traditional types of medicine, such as using natural herbs. These are known as complementary, alternative or holistic medicine.

Did you know?
• Leeches and maggots have been used in medicine for many centuries, and are still used today. Leeches can be used in surgery when doctors do not want blood to clot and block up blood vessels. Maggots can be used to help wounds to heal.
• You may have seen red and white poles outside barbers shops. In the Middle Ages, barbers carried out surgery and blood-letting. The stripes on the pole are meant to look like bandages hung up to dry.
• Antiseptics were not used to treat wounds until 1868. Their use lead to a dramatic drop in the number of people who died after major amputations-from about 45 to 15 percent.