Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm since Hippocrates
David Wootton argues, from the fifth century BC until the 1930s, doctors actually did more harm than good.
"For 2,400 years patients have believed that doctors were doing them good; for 2,300 years they were wrong." The unsparingly pessimistic view of the overwhelming failures of doctors is that of David Wootton, a professor of history who has written "Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates"
For a couple of thousand years, medicine was based on Hippocrates and his successors, especially Galen, whose theories dealt with balancing bodily fluids, and to help nature along, doctors would induce vomiting or diarrhea, apply hot irons to the body, or drain off some blood. There was no physiological benefit in such treatments, which could do nothing but make things worse. Yet such treatments were the staple of medical practice until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Why did physicians and scientists, and even patients, believe in the theories of Hippocrates and Galen, which were wrong from start to finish? According to Hippocrates, for example, the arteries carry air. No one made a connection between the pulse, which could be felt in the wrist, and the beating of the heart.
The first microscope was invented in 1575, and a hundred years later, Antony van Leeuwenhoek built hundreds of them. But no one thought of using them to continue studying the tiny particles that Leeuwenhoek saw under his microscope and illustrated.
The truth is, I never paid attention to the fact that there was such a large time gap between the invention of the microscope and its clinical use, or the fact that patients suffered such intolerable pain during operations performed without anesthesia when the substances that allowed pain relief were already known. Only when the use of ether was demonstrated in 1846, and amazingly, not by surgeons who saw the suffering they caused, but by a quack dentist who thought it was a good way to get rich, did doctors begin to administer ether to dull pain during surgical procedures.