history of the prevention and treatment of disease, or in other words
the science of healing, is a very exciting adventure, spanning almost
the entire history of man, much of it unrecorded. It starts from
primitive medicine and folklore, when it was considered more an art
than a science, continues through the remarkable scientific
breakthroughs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to the
hitech developments of today.
is evidence to show that early Man did not regard death and disease
as natural phenomena. Common maladies, such as colds or constipation,
were accepted as normal and were cured by such herbal remedies as
were available. These were not the only diseases. Serious and
disabling diseases were considered to be of supernatural origin. They
might be the result of a magic spell, visitation by a malevolent
demon, or the work of an offended god who had either projected a
dart, a stone, a worm into the body of the victim or had abstracted
something, usually the soul of the patient. The treatment then
applied was to lure the errant soul back to its proper habitat within
the body or to extract the evil intruder, be it dart or demon, by
counterspells, incantations, potions, suction, or other means.
is clear that man was a fast learner. Soon he was discovering the
science in Medicine. This becomes very clear when we study the
history of Indian medicine. The earliest concepts of medicine in
India are set out in the sacred writings called the Vedas, especially
in the metrical passages of the Atharvaveda, which may possibly date
as far back as the 2nd millennium BC. The system of medicine called
Ayurveda was recorded by Dhanvantari who was deified as the god of
period of Vedic medicine lasted until about 800 BC. The Vedas are
rich in magical practices for the treatment of diseases and in charms
for the expulsion of the demons traditionally supposed to cause
diseases. The chief conditions mentioned are fever (takman), cough,
consumption, diarrhea, dropsy, abscesses, seizures, tumours, and skin
diseases (including leprosy). The herbs recommended for treatment are
golden age of Indian medicine, from 800 BC until about AD 1000, was
marked especially b y the production of the medical treatises known
as the Caraka-samhita and Sushruta-samhita, attributed,
respectively, to Caraka, a physician, and Shushruta, surgeon.
Estimates place the Caraka-samhita in its present form as dating from
the 1st century AD, although there were earlier versions. The
Sushruta-samhita probably originated in the last centuries BC and had
become fixed in its present form by the 7th century AD. Of somewhat
lesser importance are the treatises attributed to Vagbhata. All later
writings on Indian medicine are based on these works.
being allowed to cut the dead body, the Hindu's knowledge of anatomy
was limited. But where there is a will there is a way. Some medicine
men would keep the dead body in a basket and sunk in a river for
seven days. Now the parts could be easily separated without cutting.
Though the methods are crude, still it allowed the development of
anatomy. The emphasis in Hindu anatomy was given first to the bones
and then to the muscles, ligaments, and joints. The nerves, blood
vessels, and internal organs were very imperfectly known.
Hindus believed that the body contains three elementary substances,
microcosmic representatives of the three divine universal forces,
which they called spirit (air), phlegm, and bile. Health depends on
the normal balance of these three elementary substances. The seven
primary constituents of the body -- blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow,
chyle, and semen-- are produced by the action of the elementary
substances. Semen was thought to be produced from all parts of the
body and not from any individual part or organ.
Caraka and Shushruta state the existence of a large number of
diseases, the latter believing there were as many as 1,120. Rough
classifications of diseases are given. In all texts "fever,"
of which numerous types are described, is regarded as important.
Phthisis (wasting disease, especially pulmonary tuberculosis) was
apparently prevalent, and the Hindu physicians knew the symptoms of
cases likely to terminate fatally. Small pox was common, and it is
probable that smallpox inoculation was practiced.
physicians employed all five senses in diagnosis. Hearing was used to
distinguish the nature of the breathing, alteration in voice, and the
grinding sound produced by the rubbing together of broken ends of
bones. They appear to have had a good clinical sense, and their
discourses on prognosis contain acute references to symptoms that
have grave import. Magical beliefs still persisted, however, until
late in the classical period; thus, the prognosis could be affected
by such fortuitous factors as the cleanliness of the messenger sent
to fetch the physician, the nature of his conveyance, or the types of
persons the physician met on his journey to the patient.
treatment was important and preceded any medicinal treatment. Fats
were much used, internally and externally. The most important methods
of active treatment were referred to as the "five procedures":
the administration of emetics, purgatives, water enemas, oil enemas,
and sneezing powders. Inhalations were frequently administered, as
were leeching, cupping, and bleeding.
Indian materia medica was extensive and consisted mainly of
vegetable drugs, all of which were from indigenous plants. Caraka
knew 500 medicinal plants, and Sushruta knew 760. But animal remedies
(such as the milk of various animals, bones, gallstones) and minerals
(sulfur, arsenic, lead, copper sulfate, gold) were also employed. The
physicians collected and prepared their own vegetable drugs. Among
those that eventually appeared in Western pharmacopoeias were
cardamom and cinnamom.
a result of the strict religious beliefs of the Hindus, hygienic
measures were important in treatment. Two meals a day were decreed,
with indications of the nature of the diet, the amount of water to be
drunk before and after the meal, and the use of condiments. Bathing
and care of the skin were carefully prescribed, as were cleansing of
the teeth with twigs from named trees, anointing of the body with
oil, and the use of eyewashes.
surgery, ancient Hindu medicine reached its zenith. Operations
performed by Hindu surgeons included excision of tumours, incision
and draining of abscesses, punctures to release fluid in the abdomen,
extraction of foreign bodies, repair of anal fistulas, splinting of
fractures, amputations, caesarean sections, and stitching of wounds.
broad array of surgical instruments were used. According to
Shushruta, the surgeon should be equipped with 20 sharp and 101
blunt instruments of various descriptions. The instruments were
largely of steel. Alcohol seems to have been used as a narcotic
during operations, and bleeding was stopped by hot oils and tar.
two types of operations especially, the Hindus were outstanding.
Stone in the bladder (vesical calculus) was common in ancient India,
and the surgeons frequently removed the stones by lateral lithotomy.
They also introduced plastic surgery. Amputation of the nose was one
of the prescribed punishments for adultery, and repair was carried
out by cutting from the patient's cheek or forehead a piece of tissue
of the required size and shape and applying it to the stump of the
nose. The results appear to have been tolerably satisfactory, and the
modern operation is certainly derived indirectly from this ancient
source. Hindu surgeons also operated on cataracts by couching, or
displacing the lens to improve vision.
being leaders in the art and science of healing, Indians now are pale
imitators of the West. Let us hope that like our ancestors we too
will blaze a trail of glory of which our sons and grandsons will be