It has only been within the past couple of centuries that medical doctors made a real difference. But prospective patients, and the eagerness to be free of ailments, long preceded scientific study of disease and the discovery of such things as bacteria. Originally, illnesses were thought to be produced by demons who hated us, or by gods who loved us, sending them for our correction. (Such an attitude continues in those who insist that illnesses such as AIDS are among God's tools for reforming us.) We are used to medical breakthroughs these days, but just as the greatest of technological steps was our ancient harnessing of fire, the greatest of our medical advances was the realization that disease was not supernatural. It had patterns of cause and could be controlled at least to some extent by physical, rather than spiritual, steps toward eradication. These assertions by the ancient Greeks and how their ideas of illness and cure were transferred throughout the ancient world are the subjects of _Ancient Medicine_ (Routledge) by Vivian Nutton. A professor of the history of medicine, Nutton is extremely well qualified to make this large and academic summary; the many quotations here from ancient Greek and Latin, for instance, are almost all his own translations. There are plenty of footnotes, and references to ancient texts which have not been previously available, but this is a book that is surprisingly lively and readable for an academic tome.
If people know anything about ancient medicine, they know the name Hippocrates, and of course Nutton has much to say about him here. Unfortunately, most of what we know is wrong, or at least uncorroborated. He almost undoubtedly did not write the famous Oath of Hippocrates, and much of what is accepted as his writing is actually the writings of many others within his school of thought. From him, physicians for centuries drew the theory of the "Four Humors," the concept that what the body evacuated when it was ill (blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile) indicated excesses or deficiencies of one or more of the humors. There were other schools of medicine, however, and though they often complemented rather than contradicted each other, there was a good deal of public discussion and give-and-take between them. Strongly motivating Nutton's study is concentration on Galen of Pergamum, a Hippocratic physician who made his name in Rome in the second century CE. He wrote millions of words about his theories and practice, pugnaciously contending against other schools of thought. A doctor's authority only partially came from his adherence to a particular school. Galen knew this; he stressed over and over again the importance of gaining a patient's confidence, the need for careful observation, and the importance of listening carefully to what the patient says. Any ancient doctor, and any modern one, could profit from such advice.
There is here, indeed, much to consider about the similarities of medicine past and present. For instance, ancient doctors paid special attention to urging their clients to adopt particular diets and forms of exercise (and probably had as little success in the matter as current doctors). Galen stressed the importance of doing anatomical dissections oneself, rather than being like "a steersman who navigates solely from a book," but many of his contemporaries disagreed with his dismissal of book learning. The controversy has continued two millennia on, with some arguing that the medical student's traditional dissection of the cadaver can be replaced by, say, interactive videos. Of course, some of the "cures" described here will make readers quite satisfied to be living in the 21st century. There was a treatment for scoliosis, for instance, known as succussion, which consisted of tying a patient upside down on a ladder and then dropping the ladder from a roof. The author describing this procedure says it is good for drawing a crowd who want to see a spectacle and don't care about results; but he also says he hasn't seen any patient benefit from it. Full of descriptions of working doctors and ailing patients, _Ancient Medicine_ is a colorful and authoritative examination of the origins of western medical practice.