History of Medicine

The history of medicine timeline is a long one dating all the way back to the era of the ancient Egyptians. The ancient Egyptians were advanced in their knowledge of human anatomy and had moved away, much earlier than other ancient civilizations, from the belief that evil spirits caused illnesses. They began to depend on doctors and medicines for health treatments instead of the magic of medicine men who were healers in many cultures since the time of prehistoric medicine. Scientists suspect that the reason early Egyptians were so advanced in their knowledge of the human body was because of their process of embalming their dead.

An Egyptian by the name of Imhotep is considered by most historians to be the first doctor in history to be known by name. He lived in the third millennium BC and served under the Third Dynasty king Egypt. Imhotep was also a high priest of the sun god Ra and is considered the first official engineer and architect as well.

The Father of Modern Medicine

Depending on an individual's viewpoint, the history of modern medicine began when Greek Hippocrates began practicing medicine. He is often thought of as the father of modern medicine even though he practiced close to four hundred years before the birth of Christ. Modern physicians take what is known as the Hippocratic Oath in which they promise to do no harm to their patients. Hippocrates was the founder of what we now know as clinical observation where observation of a patient was considered an important part of medical care.

Another Greek physician named Galen is considered by many to be the first surgeon in the history of surgery. His interest was in human anatomy but dissection of human cadavers had been prohibited by Roman law since 150 BC. Galen dissected dead and living animals instead to get an understanding of human anatomy. He is also known for performing surgical procedures like cataracts surgery and brain surgery on humans.


In the timeline of medicine, the discovery of the antibiotics that have saved many newborns lives and the lives of their mothers was an accident. Professor Alexander Fleming had been conducting an experiment and discovered there was no bacteria around the mold that had grown on one of his glass plates. But it wasn't until 10 years later that other scientists at the Oxford University isolated the bacteria-killing substance in the mold and created penicillin, the first antibiotic.

Medical Advances and Childbirth

The initiation of the field of microbiology is credited to Dutch scientist Antoine van Leeuwenhoek who created the first microscope to observe bacteria and microorganisms for the first time. But it was Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis who is credited in the history of doctors with the 1847 discovery that bacteria and microorganisms were connected to the fatal childbed fever of new mothers. He figured out that good hygiene reduced the number of deaths significantly and insisted that doctors wash their hands before taking care of a woman during labor and after she gave birth. His discovery was not appreciated by other doctors and many resisted this basic life-saving instruction.

Around this time the entire process of childbirth was thought to be an event that required mental intervention and medical management. Traditionally midwives cared for laboring women, but now doctors had taken over the role. Forceps use became more common by the mid-1800s, although not necessary in every case. With the increased use of forceps came an increased need for episiotomies to create an opening large enough for the forceps to be inserted. Today forceps use is on the decline with most obstetricians.

Birthing women in the 1800s were commonly drugged with chloroform and ether. By the 1920s births in hospitals became more common, as was the drugging of a laboring woman in a process that became eventually known as Twilight Sleep. Women went to "sleep" and woke up after the baby was born without any memory of the labor. Epidurals were available in the early 1900s but weren't used in labor and delivery until the 1940s. They were used sporadically through the 1960s and became more popular in the 1970s.


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