Physicians' Desk Reference: Ancient Edition
A skeleton dating back to 1,200 B.C. shows the earliest evidence of a human being who died of metastatic cancer, according to an article published earlier this week in the journal PLOS ONE.
Cancer today is among the leading causes of death, according to the World Health Organization, accounting for around 8.2 million deaths in 2012. Despite its prevalence today, few examples exist in the archaeological record of fatal instances of the disease in the ancient world. Similarly, while we have an increasing number of means of treating cancer in whatever form it might manifest, evidence is lacking as to how the disease was treated in antiquity.
While they certainly didn't have the same medical knowledge or access to pharmaceuticals or other technology, ancient medical practitioners did have their own means and methods of addressing a variety of diseases and conditions. See how doctors of antiquity treated their patients.
One of the oldest surgical procedures practiced as early as the Neolithic era is called trepanation. In case the photo isn't clear enough, trepanation is the practice of drilling holes into the skull. The intention was to treat diseases affecting the brain, such as epilepsy or mental illness. Remember: This surgical procedure was invented and practiced long before anaesthesia.
Although trepanation was performed without the sterile conditions of the modern operating room and before the discovery of modern antibiotics, the survival rates of these procedures was about 60 percent, though that number is a soft estimate based on limited studies, given that the procedure was practiced over many centuries and across different civilizations.
University of Manchester
Ancient Egyptian medical practitioners were skilled enough not only to perform surgical amputations, but also craft basic prostheses to substitute for missing body parts.
The world's oldest prostheses, discovered in the necropolis of Thebe near present-day Luxor, is a set of two wooden toes. One of the toes, dating back to at least 600 B.C., is made from cartonnage, a compound composed of linen, glue and plaster. The other, which traces back to between 950 to 710 B.C., was made of wood and leather. It was discovered on a mummy named Tabaketenmut.
Courtesy of Enrico Ciabatti
For sailors at sea for months at a time, one of the biggest concerns on an extended voyage was malnutrition. Micronutrient deficiencies as a result of not getting enough fruits and vegetables could lead to diseases like scurvy, which can be fatal if left untreated.
In order to ensure adequate nutrition at sea, ancient Roman sailors appear to have been equipped with vegetable pills, based on evidence found in a medical kit in a 2,000-year-old shipwreck discovered off the coast of Tuscany. Based on DNA analysis of the contents of two of the pills, researchers discovered a mix of plants, including carrot, radish, parsley, celery, alfalfa and more. In addition to the vegetable pills, researchers also discovered a bleeding cup, surgical hook and mortar.
International Journal of Paleopathology
It's easy to complain about having to take a trip to the dentist these days, but then again, having bad teeth could be fatal in the ancient world.
A 2,100-year-old Egyptian mummy reveals a wealthy man from Thebes who likely died in his late 20s or early 30s of a painful sinus infection brought on by numerous dental abscesses. While dentistry was practiced in ancient Egypt as far back as 5,000 years ago, the number of cavities and infections in this man's mouth would have overwhelmed even a modern practitioner.
In order to provide the patient with some kind of relief, the ancient dentist used linens dipped in medicine to ease the pain and surround the largest cavities to prevent contact with food.
National Institutes of Health
Although the first antibiotics weren't isolated until the 20th century, with the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, compounds with antibiotic properties were used in antiquity to prevent and treat infections.
As mentioned in an article published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, ancient Chinese medical practitioners applied moldy soybean curd to treat boils and sores. Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, used myrrh and inorganic salts on infected wounds. And nearly 2,000 years ago, ancient Nubians consumed antibiotic-laced beer, which they began drinking as early as two years old.
Long before aspirin, Advil, Tylenol or other over-the-counter and prescriptions were available, opium was the go-to drug for pain relief. In fact, it was thought of as a kind of cure all for diseases and conditions ranging from a simple headache to colds to stomach ailments and more chronic conditions.
First documented in lower Mesopotamia in 3,400 B.C., opium quickly spread along the Silk Road and into Asia. Opium addiction wouldn't become a real concern until the 19th century. Painkillers derived from opium are still in use today, although they are heavily regulated.
The oldest medical text in history concerns women's health. Dating back to around 1,800 B.C., the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, a translation of which can be found here, catalogues the anatomy of women's reproductive organs, pregnancy, contraception and treatments for various conditions.
Written within the papyrus is a procedure for what might be the world's oldest pregnancy test, although its efficacy is certainly questionable. The method called for a potentially pregnant woman to place an onion bulb within her vagina and leave it there overnight. If the smell of onion was detected on the women's breath in the morning, she was believed to be fertile.
Long before the creation of Viagra, ancient people devised their own methods of enhancing libido and treating conditions such as erectile dysfunction. Not many of them were very effective, but that didn't stop people from trying.
The phallus-shaped carrot and figs were thought of as aphrodisiacs by ancient Middle Eastern civilizations, according to an article published in Psychology Today. The Aztecs believed that avocados were aphrodisiacs based on the way they hang off the branch, and even dubbed them the "testicle tree." Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that sucking on anise seeds would boost libido. In ancient China, licorice was thought to enhance sexual stimulation in men, while women thought of nutmeg as an aphrodisiac.
Some aphrodisiacs used in antiquity still persist today despite doubts about their efficacy. Rhino horn, for example, was long thought to be a sexual stimulant, and is still used in traditional Chinese benefits for other applications, which has led to rhino populations coming under threat of extinction.
Even the best doctors make mistakes, which is why, in addition to an extensive understanding of medicine, they need a basic knowledge of the law. And while the ancient world didn't have anything close to the best doctors by any modern standard, ancient physicians still faced consequences for medical malpractice.
Within Hammurabi's Code of 282 laws, which dates back to the 18th millennium B.C. and is among the oldest legal codes in history, are nine laws that deal with compensation for medical practitioners, as well as punishments for malpractice. A successful operation earns a certain amount of money, depending on whether the patient was a free person or a slave. An unsuccessful operation resulting in death could lead the physician to have his hands chopped off or forced to provide a replacement slave, again depending on the status of the patient.