HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Old Medicine has an article by Andrew O'Hehir discussing a recent book, "Passions and Tempers" by Noga Arikha, historian, on what hasn't changed in medicine over the years.  Mr. O'Hehir writes,

What if a physician from, say, the late Roman Empire were transported to the 21st century and asked to treat patients? Historian Noga Arikha performs this thought experiment in her new book, "Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours."

Most obviously, he -- and he'd definitely be a he -- would be clueless about modern medical technology. He wouldn't know how to take your blood pressure, and he'd never have heard of viruses or bacteria. Cancer, to him, would be a constellation and a sign of the zodiac (as well as the word for "crab"). For certain ailments he might want to bleed you, and you'd be right in suspecting that was a bad idea. If you complained of a cold or a fever, on the other hand, he might define your illness in unfamiliar terms but he'd also be full of suggestions for herbs, poultices and potions, some of them no worse than those developed by the last 2,000 years of medical science.

This Roman doctor would probably subscribe to the humoral theory of human physiology, meaning that he believes physical and mental health are governed by the relative balance and temperature of four "humors" or fluids that flow through the human body: blood, choler (yellow bile), melancholy (black bile) and phlegm. This theory is completely discredited today, and for good reason: Those humors either do not exist or do not do what the ancients thought they did. 

Intriguingly, however, our visiting specialist would find the allopathic principle that underlies modern medicine -- the idea of treating through "contraries," or opposites -- completely familiar, since it was humoral medicine, the tradition of Hippocrates and Galen, that first advanced that principle.

Even more intriguingly, some medical concepts that seem relatively new to us would also strike him as normal, like the idea that stress can cause physical ailments, or that mental illness might result from a chemical imbalance in the body. Once he figured out what you meant by "depression," for instance, he'd want to treat it with herbal remedies, probably using plant products still employed for that purpose today.

In short, this Caligulan doctor would possess what we'd now call a holistic conception of the human body and human health, along with an impressive body of empirical knowledge about treatments and cures. He would understand the body as a carefully balanced organism full of invisible essences, and his own role as a cautious recalibrator who intervenes only as necessary to restore that balance. He would know almost nothing, by our standards, about human anatomy, but he'd be a highly cultured fellow who had read more Aristotle than any doctor you're likely to meet today.

The article is an interesting read and the book looks good too.

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