By Patrick J. Kiger

How Medicine Made Us Modern

The revival of ancient cures alongside modern scientific advances could help us face new threats to our health.

In 1991, two hikers in the Alps, along the border of Austria and Italy, came upon a corpse emerging from melting ice. It turned out to belong to a man who had died 5,300 years before. Scientists who studied Ötzi, as he’s been nicknamed, determined that he was about 45 and found an arrowhead lodged in his back that indicates he suffered a violent demise.

But what’s more intriguing are the signs that at the time of his death, Ötzi had been receiving treatment for various ailments.  He had tattooed lines and crosses located in parts of his body, such as his joints and along his back, that are vulnerable to injury and arthritic pain, which suggests that ancient healers may have performed a kind of acupuncture on him. And his leather pouch contained pieces of birch polypore fungus, an herbal medicine with antibiotic properties.

Since ancient times, humans have sought ways to counter diseases, heal injuries and stave off the effects of aging.  Over thousands of years, medicine has played a crucial role in our species’ survival and expansion across the planet.  In that time, it’s evolved from an art based in large part upon superstitions and wishful assumptions, into a science-based discipline that dispenses drugs synthesized in laboratories, employs robots to perform surgery, and is even starting to tinker with the genetic material inside cells. 

But even as modern medicine has extended the human lifespan and protected us from some once-feared diseases, new menaces have arisen. New strains of killer viruses can appear in remote areas and take advantage of modern humans’ ease of movement to spread rapidly across the planet, and the overuse of antibiotics in modern society has contributed to the rise of drug-resistant bacterial diseases.   But even as modern medicine marshals advanced technology to deal with those threats, some researchers also are looking back into the past and studying ancient cures, to see if they can be repurposed in the present.

Humans’ attempts to heal themselves started long before Ötzi. Neanderthal teeth found in a cave in northwest Spain, which date back nearly 50,000 years, show traces of medicinal herbs such as yarrow and chamomile, and prehistoric skulls have small holes that healers drilled in them, perhaps in an effort to release evil spirits or as a more practical treatment for head ailments.

Without scientific knowledge to guide them, early humans instead often relied upon supernatural beliefs; the first doctors probably doubled as shamans and sorcerers, and used incantations and dancing to enhance the treatments. Their magic may well have helped some patients to get better because of the placebo effect, which is still observed in modern medicine.

That mixing of spiritual beliefs and healing was seen in early civilizations as well.  In ancient Egypt, Imhotep led a cult of potion-dispensing priest-healers, and became so powerful that he came to be worshiped as a god. Archaeologists have found papyrus scroll with instructions for some of the cures practiced by his followers, such as treating wounds with honey. The Mesopotamians believed that each disease was caused by a particular god or demon, and physicians performed rituals to drive those spirits from the patient’s body, in addition to treating them with medicinal plants and other, more bizarre cures, such as doses of crushed lizard and raven’s blood.

In addition to the blending of medicine and mysticism, pre-scientific physicians also filled in the gaps in knowledge with assumptions—sometimes fostering misconceptions that persisted for many centuries, and may have cost countless patients their lives. The classical Greek physician Hippocrates and his Roman counterpart Galen, for example, both thought that health was related to four humors—blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile—that could fall out of balance and cause disease. If a healthy diet and herbal medicines couldn’t restore the balance, doctors might resort to more extreme methods, such as opening the patient’s veins to let out some of the blood. 17th century European healers, who didn’t know how infectious diseases spread, dreamed up the idea of miasma, a poisonous vapor that they believed caused illnesses.  (Malaria, for example, comes from the Italian words for “bad” and “air.”)

But by the 1600s, medicine was being altered by the rise of modern science. Instead of relying upon ancient beliefs, English physician William Harvey performed experiments to figure out how blood circulated in the body, and the invention of the microscope revealed the existence of bacteria. By the mid-1800s, germ theory—the idea that many diseases were caused by specific microorganisms, rather than humors or miasma—began gaining wide acceptance. Medicine also began to develop technologies such as anesthesia, which enabled patients to survive the pain of lengthy operations, and antiseptic practices, such as the use of carbolic acid on wounds and sterilization of surgical instruments, that dramatically reduced the risk of patients dying from infections. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, German researcher Paul Ehrlich introduced the modern approach to creating drugs, by  searching for in the laboratory for chemicals—“magic bullets,” as he called them--that attacked specific disease-causing organisms.

In the US, the average person born in 1900 could expect to live 47.3 years; by 2014, the typical American lifespan had increased to 78.8 years

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the fusion of medicine and science accelerated.  Medical researchers developed antibiotic drugs that could cure bacterial infections, and vaccines that provided protection for the first time against viruses that caused diseases such as yellow fever, influenza and polio. They figured out the structure of DNA, the chemical in cells that stores genetic information, and successfully sequenced the human genome--making possible a future in which doctors might replace genes or insert new ones into cells to cure diseases. They devised metal and plastic parts that could be implanted by surgeons to replace defective heart valves and worn-out joints. It became commonplace for surgeons to transplant hearts, kidneys and other organs into ailing patients’ bodies, with the help of drugs that suppressed the immune system to prevent rejection. 

Medical advances, along with improvement in living standards, have resulted in a dramatic increase in life expectancy in many places across the globe, which the National Institute of Aging hails as “one of society’s greatest achievements.” In the US, the average person born in 1900 could expect to live 47.3 years; by 2014, the typical American lifespan had increased to 78.8 years. But thanks to the modern world’s heavy use—and sometimes misuse—of antibiotics, we face an increasing menace in the form of infectious organisms that have evolved to become resistant to existing antibiotics.  One such organism, MRSA, alone causes more than 11,000 deaths each year in the U.S.

In order to find additional anti-microbial agents, some researchers are returning to medicine’s ancient roots. Emory University medical ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave, for example, has gathered hundreds of shrubs, weeds and herbs used in folk medicine and taken them back to the laboratory for chemical analysis, in hopes they will provide cures for antibiotic-resistant microbes. According to a 2016 New York Times article, she and her research team have found a promising potential agent in an extract of Brazilian peppertree berries. The substance apparently prevents MRSA from forming skin lesions in laboratory animals and shrinks a film created by the pathogen. Meanwhile, Romanian researchers have discovered that willow herb, a folk cure for prostate and urinary tract problems, may be useful in reducing the doses of antibiotics needed to treat bacterial and fungal infections. And English researchers in 2015 reported that a 9th-Century AD Anglo-Saxon remedy—onion, garlic, wine and a portion of cow’s stomach—was effective in killing an MRSA sample in the laboratory.

So in some ways, medicine has come full-circle in the past 5,000 years from the prehistoric world in which Ötzi relied upon fungus as an antibiotic.

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