Has scientific thinking benefitted medicine?

Obviously, I think that this statement is true. Scientific thinking has benefitted medicine greatly over the years and will continue to do so well into the 21st century. It can be argued that scientific thinking began in Ancient Egypt, when the role of the priest and the role of the doctor were separated for the first time. This was the beginning of scientific thinking, when religion was separated from medicine. It had been acknowledged that religion could not cure all diseases, although the Egyptians continued to worship gods as a kind of “back-up” cure, just in case the practical method did not work. This was known as the Dual Approach. The Egyptians can claim to be the first civilisation to have a doctor whose name was recorded. Imhotep treated patients in Ancient Egypt in about 2700 BC.

The Egyptians came up with a few ideas as to how diseases were caused. They still believed that angering a god could cause diseases, but they also looked for more practical ways. One of these ideas was that the body was made up of channels, rather like the River Nile, and that if one of these channels became blocked, then it could cause disease. As well as coming up with rational and scientific, to an extent, ideas, they came up with practical ways of dealing with disease or injuries. To treat a broken nose, they would clean out the nose with two strips of linen and then insert strips of grease into the nose. Once the swelling had gone down, the nose would be bandaged. The Egyptians, with their scientific knowledge, knew that they could not treat the nose until the swelling had gone down, so they took measures to reduce the swelling.

The Egyptians were the first civilisation to be able to read and write. This helped people a lot later on. They were able to write down any ideas or theories they had, so that people after them could read them and improve them. Probably the next advancement in scientific thinking in medicine came in Ancient China. There was a book written called the “Yellow Emperor’s Manual of Medicine”. In this book there is a paragraph which says: “In treating illness you should look at all the circumstances, look carefully at the symptoms, observe the conditions and attitudes of the patient. If you speak of the presence of ghosts and spirits you cannot speak of medical treatment”.

This is a great advance in scientific thinking. People were discovering that illness was not sent by the gods. They knew that there must be a rational and decent explanation for the cause of disease. This shows that science and religion had finally separated. However, later civilisations, such as the Greeks, refused to accept that all disease must be down to rational causes. The height of the Ancient Greek’s civilisation was about 600 BC. They took a lot of their theories and ideas straight from the Ancient Egyptians, as they were only on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.

Unlike the Chinese, they did not believe that there was a rational explanation for every disease. They still worshipped gods of medicine. For example, the abaton was a temple where sick people would go to be cured by the god Asclepios and his two daughters, Hygeia and Panacea. This was really a backward step. The Chinese already knew that gods could not cause illness, they knew that there must be a proper explanation for all diseases, yet the Greeks were still worshipping gods in the hope of being cured.

Probably the most scientific of all of the medical ideas from Ancient Greece was Hippocrates’ Clinical Method of Observation, the idea of observing the symptoms of an ill person and record them so that it would be easier next time to recognise the disease. This was scientific thinking at its best. Hippocrates realised that most people with the same disease are going to have the same symptoms, so if they are recorded and recognised, the disease can be identified and the patient hopefully cured.

It was in Ancient Greece that the Theory of the Four Humours was developed. This theory stated that the human body was made up of four substances, or humours: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. If all of these four humours were in balance, then everything was fine, but if the levels altered, then you became ill. Doctors accepted this theory and it was used as far as the Middle Ages.

Galen was a Greek doctor who worked in Rome as the Roman Empire was growing. He practised the Clinical Method of Observation and accepted the Theory of the Four Humours. He also practised the Use of Opposites, eg. giving a warm drink to someone who is suffering from cold. This was linked to the Theory of the Four Humours. Although he made few discoveries, and based his ideas mainly on those of Hippocrates, Galen wrote a number of books. At that time, dissection was regarded as taboo, and Galen’s reference to the anatomy of a human body depended mainly on his dissection of animals. His influence lasted over 1500 years. He remained the highest medical authority until Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey.

The Romans came next, and their ideas were almost unchanged until the Middle Ages. They believed that disease had natural causes, and the main dangers for health were bad water and sewage. The Romans were aware that dirty water could lead to ill health, so they tried to take measures to prevent people coming into contact with any. This was scientific thinking. The Romans believed that dirty water was a source of illness. They didn’t quite know how, but they had an idea, so they took measures against it. Massive aqueducts were built, along with sewer systems.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, most of these theories and medical records were lost. This showed, in that from the collapse of the Roman Empire to about the Middle Ages, no real advances were made in medicine in Europe. However, in 1242 in Cairo, Ibn an-Nafis disagreed with Galen’s theory of the movement of blood in the heart. Ibn an-Nafis’ theory was that it moved through the lungs. This theory is now accepted as correct. However, it was not taken up straight away, and Galen’s view continued to be taught for another 300 years.

Between 1350 and 1400 the Black Death was rampant throughout Europe. The disease was spread by rats, but probably the main reason as to why it spread so far so quickly was the state of the streets. Towns were disgusting, with piles of waste lying about in the streets and the rest of it in the rivers. The streets were not cleaned very often. It has been noticed, however, that the number of entries in London records about street cleaning was also at its highest between these years. People may have had an idea that dirt caused disease, but they had no medical knowledge to back this idea up. This may not have been scientific thinking, but the people in the towns must have had some kind of feeling about the dirt being a cause of disease.

The Middle Ages saw no real medical advances, but there was one thing. In the Middle Ages there were lots of wars going on everywhere in Europe. In those days, any kinds of weapons were used, so the wounds were horrific. Lots of limbs had to be amputated, but the soldiers often died from the infection which got into the wound. A mild antiseptic in the form of wine was used. A French surgeon called Ambroise Pare developed new ways of treating wounds and amputations among the wounded soldiers. The old practice after an amputation was to seal the open wound shut with a cautery iron. Pare introduced the idea of tying up the open wounds with ligatures. This was scientific thinking. Pare knew that cauterization was not working, so he came up with another way of solving the problem. Infection was still present, but not as much. The death rate was reduced considerably.

The next period after the Middle Ages was the Renaissance, when there was a renewed interest in the Greek and Roman arts. One of the most important men of the Renaissance was Andreas Vesalius. He studied in Brussels and re-edited many Greek medical books. He was a professor of surgery at Padua University in Italy. He dissected human bodies and studying skeletons. He wrote a book called “The Fabric of the Human Body” which challenged many of Galen’s ideas on anatomy. He proved his ideas were correct by using human bodies and not animals as Galen had done. He challenged Galen’s views on the movement of blood, saying that blood was not made in the liver as Galen had previously said. Vesalius thought scientifically and was able to back up his theories because dissection of human bodies was now allowed. Because he was able to prove his ideas, they were accepted.

Another important man in the Renaissance was William Harvey. He also studied at Padua. He discovered that blood was pumped around the body, rejecting Galen’s ideas that blood was constantly made and burnt up. His work led to the general questioning of Greek and Roman medical ideas. Edward Jenner was born in 1749. He is known as the man who started off vaccinations. He had heard a tale in the country that people who had had the mild disease of cowpox did not catch the more serious disease of smallpox. Jenner decided to test out this story. He took a small sample of the cowpox germ and injected it into a young boy. He then injected the boy with the deadly disease of smallpox. The boy was immune from the disease – he did not catch smallpox. Jenner did not know why the vaccine worked, but he knew that it did work.

Louis Pasteur was the person who disproved the spontaneous generation theory. Up until Pasteur’s time, people had believed that things, such as meat, went “off” because things, such as worms and maggots, actually grew out of the meat. Pasteur was asked to help a local brewer and he discovered that there are tiny micro-organisms in the air, and these are the things which make things go “off”. This became known as the germ theory. Robert Koch was a German doctor who discovered a way of photographing and staining bacteria so that they were easier to see. Both him and Pasteur studied the germs they were investigating very carefully. Both had medical links – Pasteur was a Professor of Chemistry and Koch was a doctor, so they used scientific thinking all of the time.

Since the times of Pasteur and Koch, medicine has come a long way. Most of the people involved in medicine have had medical links, either being a doctor, a doctor’s assistant etc. This means that they will all have used scientific knowledge in their investigations. A lot of them will have been naturally curious, so they will have wanted to find out things, and then they will have used their scientific knowledge. Scientific thinking has benefitted medicine in more ways than one. The discovery of electricity made it possible for all sorts of new machinery to be developed, machinery for medical purposes and for other purposes, too. From the 1900s, treatment machines using electricity have been developed eg. Radiation machines, incubators, heart-lung machines, kidney dialysis machines etc.

Scientific thinking has definitely benefitted medicine, but there is one drawback, namely the cost. All science experiments have to be funded, and the money must come from somewhere. It is usually the taxpayer who has to pay for these experiments. Some people complain about the cost, but really, their complaints aren’t justified. The experiments that the money goes on are going to benefit everybody, so I think that the money is well spent. There may be sometimes when the experiments don’t pay off and the result is not as expected. Maybe then, people can complain a little bit, but generally, I think that there is no cause for complaint.

Money is perhaps the only bad thing which people can find about scientific thinking. If you add up all of the good points and the bad points, I think that the good points outweigh the bad points. Scientific thinking is the reason medicine is as advanced as it is now, and people should do all they can to encourage it to continue.

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