Doctors And Demons By James W. Williamson, M.D. The progress of science in general and med

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Doctors And Demons By James W. Williamson, M.D. The progress of science in general and medicine in particular has been greatly hindered by religion. A historical overview will show the negative relationship between medicine and religion. For purposes of this discussion we shall concentrate on medicine as a branch of science, even though medicine is also an art. How has religion hindered medical progress? It has done so by promoting a nonrational way of thinking through the ages. Nonetheless, there are exceptions to religion's negative influence on medicine. These include the promotion of a caring attitude toward the sick and the establishment of nursing orders and hospitals. Early History Early medicine consisted of the use of herbs, crude surgery and magic. Medicine and religion were one and the same. The first doctors were witch doctors or sorcerers. Since illness was thought to result from demonic possession, a cure often involved casting out a demon. Primitive practices were sometimes unintentionally comical. In Babylon, for example, priest physicians arrived at a prognosis in a most interesting way. The patient was instructed to breathe into a sheep's nose. The animal was then killed and its liver examined and compared to a clay model of the organ which was subdivided into numerous areas with a different prognosis in each portion. Ancient History Science and scientific medicine emerged between 600 and 400 B.C. in Ionia. Ionia lay along the western coast of present-day Turkey and included numerous adjacent islands. The Ionians developed a logical way of thinking based on evidence and experiments. The isolation on the islands probably contributed to their independent way of thinking. They also had an unusual tradition which attached prestige to working with their hands and, therefore, encouraged them to do experiments. The birth of science occurred on May the 28th in the year 585 B.C. On that day Thales of Miletus predicted an eclipse scientifically. Democritus (460-365 B.C.) said matter is fundamentally made up of particles called atoms. Epicurus (341-260 B.C.) denied the reality of anything that can't be perceived by the senses. This idea is, of course, the fundamental precept of science. Hippocrates (460 B.C.) was the father of medicine. He, too, lived on the Ionian island of Cos. He insisted that his medical school be based on the current equivalent of physics and chemistry. He wrote the first scientific case histories. His original and profound thinking as embodied in his essay on the "Sacred Disease" (epilepsy) marked a revolutionary approach to medicine. Hippocrates dismissed mysticism. He stated, "I am about to discuss the disease called sacred. It is not, in my opinion, any more divine or sacred than any other disease, but has a natural cause and its supposed divine origin is due to men's inexperience, and to their wonder at its peculiar character." With these opening words to his treatise he dismissed gods from medicine. Surprisingly enough, the famous Greek Philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (300s B.C.) dealt a major blow to scientific progress and set back previous gains. They reintroduced the idea of a spiritual structure to the universe which was beyond the senses. This misconception was adopted enthusiastically by Christian Europe and was one of the fundamental causes why the world was led down a scientific blind alley for 1,000 years. Clarissimus Galen lived from 130-200 A.D. in Rome. He provided a dramatic finale before the gloom of the Middle Ages set in. He is said to have kept twelve scribes busy recording his observations, opinions and autobiographical material. In spite of his brilliant observations and experiments, he made many errors. His profound intellectual flaw was that he filled in gaps of knowledge with the way he thought God had constructed nature. To Galen's credit, however, he cautioned that one should be skeptical and confirm all his ideas with experiments. This caution was ignored and his findings were accepted as dogma. Galen dominated medical thought far into the 16th century. Even as late as 1559, Dr. John Geyner was made to submit an apology to the College of Physicians in London because he made the statement that Galen's work contained errors. The Middle Ages After Galen's death the Middle [Dark] Ages began. Scientific thinking, after its promising beginnings, was suppressed and largely disappeared. Rome declined. Barbarian hordes overran the Roman Empire. Christianity replaced the Greek and Roman gods. Christ's message made medicine unnecessary. Disease was interpreted to be punishment for sin. The doctor who treated patients by rational means meddled sinfully with God's design. Using drugs implied a lack of faith. Faith healing received official sanction from the Church. Since medical treatment was thought to be a spiritual process, it was given by monks. Dissection was banned by the Church since it meant interfering with the sanctity of the human body. Late Middle Ages/Renaissance The grip of the Church on medical and scientific thought seemed to be unshakable and unending. This stagnation ended when secular medical schools appeared at Salerno, Bologna and Padua. Salerno was the first secular institution in the West. It was an altogether progressive institution. Anatomy was taught. Dissections of the human body were done, although previously prohibited by the Church. Dissection began at Bologna in 1405. The school even had some female professors. One of the most popular medical books of all time was published by the professors. It was called the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum and contained 36 rules of health. The general appeal of the book is apparent from these examples: (1) Don't read in bed. (2) Don't drink too much. (3) Don't love too much. (4) Don't strain too much. Rhymes: "Shun idle slumber, nor delay // the urgent calls of nature to obey, // Nor trivial count it after pompous fare, //to rise from the table and to take the air." Padua's medical school was regarded as a hotbed of heresy by the Church. William Harvey (1578-1657), discoverer of the human circulation, was a graduate. Galileo (1564-1642) was on the faculty. Andreas Vesalius (1514-64), professor of anatomy, published a beautiful and detailed description of human anatomy entitled De Humani Corporis Fabrica at the age of twenty-eight. More than 200 anatomical errors by Galen were exposed by the Fabrica. When the scientific method from the Ionians and Greeks was reintroduced, it seemed that progress in science and medicine would proceed at an accelerating pace. But, alas, progress was fitful and slow. Progress in medicine lagged even behind progress in science in general. Empedocles' (400 B.C.) concept of the four humours (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) still dominated medical treatment. All therapy was designed to adjust these humours by bleeding and purging. Blood letting as a form of treatment did not stop until the 1830s when P.C.A. Louis introduced statistical analysis to medical studies. Centuries of blood letting were then discredited by a well controlled study that showed that bleeding was of no use or even harmful. The final blow to the irrational four humours theory was Rudolph Virchow's 1958 book, Cellular Pathology. This book established the cell as the fundamental unit of the body and provided a conceptual framework for rational medicine. Modern History After 1800 or so, medicine progressed at a very rapid and accelerating rate. The basic tenets of science, which require logic and evidence, were well established. The idea so long promoted by the Church that disease was punishment by God for sin was disproved by Louis Pasteur's discovery of micro-organisms and also by demonstration of specific disease processes in organs. Supernatural explanations were discarded anew as they had been centuries ago by Hippocrates. The Present It is sometimes discouraging to still see the strong inhibiting influence of religion on rational thought. Supernatural explanations endure and interfere with medical progress. The scientific method, however, has produced too many spectacular gains in our knowledge to ever be abandoned again as it was in the Middle [Dark] Ages. After all, astrology was universally accepted in the Middle [Dark] Ages as a guide for all action including medical treatment. People who did not accept a supernatural being were considered deranged. (Some may still say they are.) Nonetheless, as we have seen here, many other bizarre ideas from earlier ages have been abandoned. There has been great progress and more may be expected. As we now see how destructive religion can be to scientific progress, we realize the importance of keeping our educational system free from the influence of supernatural, illogical thinking. The detrimental effect of the Church on medicine throughout history should encourage us to maintain vigilance. Bibliography Bettmann, Otto L. A Pictorial History of Medicine. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1956. Crick, Francis. What Mad Pursuit. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988. Frazer, James George, Sir. The Golden Bough. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1951. Mandelbaum-Schmid, Judith. "Renaissance Journey: From Art to Anatomy," MD, March, 1991, 27-36. "Medicine and Surgery, History of," Encyclopedia Britannica, 1973 Edition, Vol. 15. Nuland, Sherwin B. Doctors: The Biography of Medicine. New York: Vintage Books, Inc., 1988. Ober, William B., M.D. Bottoms Up!: A Pathologist's Essays On Medicine and the Humanities. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980. Stenger, Victor J. Not By Design. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1988. Copyright James W. Williamson, M.D. James W. Williamson, M.D., was graduated from Temple University Medical School, and worked in family practice in Florida from 1954-1961. Since then, he has specialized in cardiology. He and his wife Martha have three sons and a stepson. He was raised in various Protestant churches and gradually, from his readings, became a freethinker. He originally delivered this speech before Freethinkers, Inc. in Winter Park, Florida. --------------------------------------------------------------- This article is reprinted (with permission) from the April 1993 issue of Freethought Today, bulletin of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. For more information, write or call Freedom From Religion Foundation P. O. Box 750 Madison, WI 53701 USA (608) 256-8900 --------------------------------------------------------------


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