By on August 1, 2010 in Health & Fitness, History, Science

Not So Modern Medicine

If you think that everything from intricate brain operations to delicate nose jobs and other surgeries of all kinds are inventions of modern medicine… think again. The art and science of surgery on humans was developed and widely practiced thousands of years ago.

From the ancient Greeks, who invented numerous medical instruments whose basic designs are still used today, to the ancient Indians, who practiced reconstructive nose surgery on a regular basis, the surgical skills of those who lived many centuries before us were truly amazing and inspiring to future generations.

Great Greek Physicians

When the Romans wanted the best doctors in the world to care for them, they called on the Greeks. Thanks to Alexander the Great, who encouraged all of his physicians to push the limits of their knowledge, Greek physicians developed themselves into some of the best in the world.

In 46 BC, Julius Caesar paved the way for Greek physicians to work in Rome and many of the elite Romans hired them as their own personal doctors. They were experts in human anatomy and physiology and they had developed over 100 medical instruments including scalpels, bone drills and the vaginal speculum. The idea of scars on the body was very distasteful to Romans. While scars on the front of the body were ok, scars on the back were a sign that one had run from battle or been whipped as a slave. It was a very popular procedure to shave off scarred skin, or cut out scars and sew the edges of the skin back together – surgeries in which the Greeks excelled.

There were a lot of experimental operations in ancient Rome by the Greeks. One of them was the reversal of circumcision, where the foreskin was raised from extra skin at the base of the penis. Another procedure was reducing the breast size of obese men due to the fact that being fat had a very negative stigma. The Greeks were not only experts at surgery, but also at pharmacology. They could help patients manage pain during surgeries by utilizing plant extracts including opium and poppy. Like today, there was much misuse and abuse of medicinal drugs and addicts would count on their physicians to get them powerful and sedative narcotics even when they didn’t truly need them.

The Greeks weren’t the only ones with advanced surgical techniques. Numerous other civilizations throughout the world were practicing advanced procedures on the human body.

Hole in the Head

Trepanning is the art and science of creating a hole into the head of a living human being in order to relieve pain or cure disease.   The hole can be created by drilling, scraping, sawing or numerous other methods.

Trepanning is the most ancient form of brain surgery and it was practiced as long as 40,000 years ago by Cro-Magnons. It has also been used by ancient Romans, ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, ancient and modern Chinese, Indians, by many tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa and by many other cultures throughout history.   While many have dismissed the procedure as quackery, it has simply been used by too wide an array of major world cultures to do so. The reasons for the use of trepanning vary greatly from culture to culture.

The Gusii of Kenya use trepanning to relieve headaches after a blow to the head during battle. It has been proven that trepanning can relieve pressure caused by skull fractures and other serious head and brain conditions. The Lugbara of Uganda practice trepanning for Shamanic reasons, including releasing evil spirits that may be causing the pain. Other cultures use the procedure simply to remove puss, blood and bone fragments. Throughout most cultures, the patient’s head is shaved and washed, and then they are placed in a laying position and restrained. While the operation can be rather simple for the surgeon, it can be very painful for the patient.   For better or maybe worse, the surgeon who performs the trepanning is usually not specialized in the procedure, but rather a generalized physician who performs the procedure.

There were however many ancient physicians who did have specialties, especially those that were skilled in the art of cosmetic surgery.

Nose Jobs Aplenty

The Hindus of India are widely known for creating Ayurveda, one of the oldest medical disciplines in the world. Collaboratively, the discipline has listed treatments for well over 1000 illnesses including everything from injuries to mental problems.

But ancient Indians are also known for their handy work in the field of reconstructive nose surgery. Due to the fact that noses were considered a source of great pride by Indians, and the fact that many criminals had their noses cut off as punishment, Indian surgeons had plenty of subjects on which to practice their reconstructive surgery skills. They would first measure the nose and then create a wax molding for shape. Then they would take skin grafts from the cheek or forehead and fold it over the molding. As crude as the procedure may sound, it was usually extremely successful, except for the scarring caused on the area from which the skin was removed. Occasionally, complications from skin infections were a problem, but Ayurvedic medicine usually had the answer to solve them. Indian nose surgeries and other medical procedures were so advanced that their use spread to other parts of the world.

One Byzantine emperor underwent and Indian nose surgery after his was amputated. He soon adopted the name “Cut Nose.”

Thankful for Ancient Surgery

Though modern surgeries to this day still have their limitations and shortcomings, we can thank the physicians from thousands of years ago for helping us come as far as we have. Surgery is both an art and science and the desire and will to push its limitations are what will help future generations to receive the best healthcare.


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