Doctors And Demons By James W. Williamson, M.D. The progress of science in general and med
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 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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Bettmann, Otto L. A Pictorial History of Medicine. Springfield,
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Crick, Francis. What Mad Pursuit. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988.
Frazer, James George, Sir. The Golden Bough. New York: The Macmillan
Mandelbaum-Schmid, Judith. "Renaissance Journey: From Art to Anatomy,"
MD, March, 1991, 27-36.
"Medicine and Surgery, History of," Encyclopedia Britannica, 1973
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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,
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
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank