Beetles, Rats, Humors and a Doctor in Disguise- Ancient Approaches to Medicine

In the LSA CA’s penultimate lecture of its 2020-21 season, we were delighted to welcome Professor Helen King, a leading expert in Greek and Roman medicine, for a fascinating webinar about some of the intriguing procedures surrounding physical and mental health in ancient medicine. She covered a vast range of topics from fumigation of the womb to military first aid packs to a lovely pessary recipe treatment! She highlighted the symbiosis between religion and science in treatment and explored the extent to which ancient medicine was harmful or had successful healing properties. Professor King’s insight into the world of medicine in an age rife with disease and illness allowed us to not only reflect upon the often-grotesque methods of curing ailment, but to acknowledge the foundations upon which our modern medical science originates.

Professor King began the lecture with an insight into the various groups in the Mediterranean who practised medicine. For example, the Egyptians are renowned for mummifying the dead, but it was more of a religious process with organ jars dedicated to different deities than a form of medicine. The Babylonians seemingly had two types of healer – religious and medical – but recent studies suggest that their approach to medicine was not so clear cut, and that there was much more overlap between them than was previously believed. Therefore, both religion and science seem to play a key role in many ancient societies, and continued to do so: the Temple of Asclepius, for example, continued to be used as place for healing until the age of Christianity, when the Church introduced similar roles of healing in Catholic healing shrines.

Next, Professor King discussed whether Ancient Greek or Roman medicine harmed or helped people. It is important to note that although some medical techniques could be painful, they could also be used to cure ailments, such as pots of ointment that were used to treat eye disorders. Surgery was at the top of the hierarchy of treatment provided when an illness occurred. First, doctors would begin with prescribing a change in diet, lifestyle and environment. If altering diet did not result in success, doctors would prescribe drugs, which were mostly plant but sometimes animal based and were available across a range of costs. This could be an issue, as cabbage water and medicine from the east were drastically different in expense. If drugs were also unsuccessful, surgery was performed. A doctor might set a broken bone, amputate an arm or a leg, drain fluid from the lungs, or perform a procedure known as bloodletting.

Bloodletting involved the draining of blood from a patient; doctors thought that having too much blood contributed to illness. Ancient surgeries were often performed because of war as doctors tried to save the lives of those involved in combat, whilst Galen for example learned most of his knowledge of bodily anatomy from the gruesome, gaping wounds of gladiators in the arena.  

Galen vivisecting a pig

Speaking of Galen, Professor King next explored ancient views on dissection and vivisection. Dissection was not normally performed on people, as it was thought that it didn’t give any knowledge into how to cure common illnesses such as a cold or the flu. However, Galen was often known to perform public vivisections on animals, for example, pigs, which he cut at the throat to demonstrate that cutting the vocal cords stopped the pig from screaming. Galen’s knowledge of anatomy and medicine was influenced by Hippocrates who theorised that illness occurred when one or more of the four humours of the body (Blood, Black Bile, Yellow Bile and Phlegm) were imbalanced. An excess of Black Bile, or melancholy, is thought to have been an ancient interpretation of mental illness. If diet or drugs were ineffective in balancing the Black Bile, bloodletting would occur, which was supposedly used often to cure melancholy or diseases of the mind, as the wonderfully named Pliny Earle recorded in 1854 – ‘bloodletting in mental disorders was recommended for mania, melancholy and dementia’.

A fantastic representation of Agnodice revealing her true identity at her trial by Classics student Amber Roy-Stanley

Professor King then went on to reflect upon the history of women in medicine. She did this by telling the story of Agnodice, a young girl who desired to study and practise medicine but could not as the Greeks had no such thing as midwives and a woman could not be a doctor. Consequently, Agnodice cut off her hair and disguised herself as a man to be educated in medicine along with the men. She visited a sick woman, who refused to be seen by a man, so Agnodice had to reveal herself to be a woman. As a result, more and more women wished to be seen by Agnodice, and, as the story goes, would even cry out her name when in pain. The male doctors grew extremely suspicious of Agnodice, concluding that she must be seducing women and stealing their business. Agnodice was brought to trial for seduction, but when she revealed herself to be a woman, she was instead tried for being a female doctor. Over the centuries, this myth had a huge impact and was used to prove that women could do medicine, as well as utilised by men to emphasise the untrustworthiness of women and female doctors.

Rubens’ Death of Seneca

Professor King then tackled the question of whether euthanasia was a recognised concept in the ancient world. As she explained, the Greek word euthanasia literally means ‘good death’ – an example of which would have been dying in war for your country. The death of Seneca is a prime example of how assisted suicide was complicated in the ancient world, as Rubens’ Death of Seneca depicts a physician aiding Seneca in the re-opening of his veins after having attempted poison as a suicide order from the Emperor Nero. However, in Tacitus’ account of Seneca’s death, this assistance doesn’t occur. It was noted that ancient doctors certainly were aware that different doses of drugs could affect the body in different ways, and that too large a dose could kill a man, but whether they utilised this information to any affect, or to assist suicides, is unclear.

Concerning abortion, Professor King spoke about a section in the Hippocratic Treatise in which a slave girl’s ‘seed fell out’, which has been interpreted as an abortion, however it was most likely not since this intervention was taken very close to the time of conception. Instead, Professor King argued that ancient people would want their monthly menstrual cycle, due to the idea of women’s skin being ‘spongier’ than men’s, causing fluid to get stuck in the body, potentially killing the woman. Therefore, any exiting of fluid from the female body was viewed as a positive thing, which very much disproves any form of abortion being used to miscarry, as the ancients were certainly pro-conception.

Lastly, Professor King concluded her presentation by talking about the ancient methods of oral hygiene, which was grotesque to say the least. One method of tooth whitening, as described in Catullus Poem 39 on Ignatius’ teeth, was to use urine. This approach is plausible though repulsive, as urine was also used to whiten clothes. An even more revolting method of oral hygiene was to grind up the heads of several rats into a paste, then pasting them on the teeth to stop bad breath. This method, I imagine, would not have hindered bad breath but may indeed have contributed to it!

Overall, though some of the ancient methods to cure disease were certainly questionable, we still see some of the methods to remedy illness reflected in our society today. Though we no longer use urine to whiten our teeth, or rats to hinder bad breath, the systematic hierarchy of treatment is utilised by modern doctors as an effective foundation for medical procedures. Huge thank you to Professor King for answering so many of our questions and for giving us a truly fascinating lecture which was engrossing and accessible to all regardless of previous knowledge on the subject.

If you would like to learn more about ancient medicine, you might want to enrol on this free Future Learn course or read Professor King’s book on Hippocrates, which is openly available online.