The medical practices of the Middle Ages have always made us more grateful for the modern advancement in medical sciences. The scary instruments, nasty medicines and weird rituals of the old time are enough to make a healthy guy sick, leave curing them.
But like everything in the Universe, it was not all bad. While scary and weird, some of these practices were very effective. Later-half of the Middle Ages saw a new development in the medical science.
Renaissance thinkers and physicians like Vesalius, Da Vinci, Pare et al, innovated new practices and revived some very old ones. Their approach to medicine is not as pleasant as we are used to, but they definitely helped us usher into the modern scientific era.
Here are 13 medical practices from old times which still help to restore human health:
The autopsy is the most iconic breakthrough of the Renaissance era. Its development opened gates to new dimensions in medical and forensic sciences. Many ancient civilizations like Egypt, Greece, China, India were well-aware of the procedure and used it for studying anatomy.
It was introduced in Europe by Greeks, but with the rise of Church, the autopsy was attacked as a horrible offense against the dead. Still, some curious mind continued autopsy but in secrecy.
The Renaissance era saw the revival of the practice.
The fascinating pictures and accounts of Leonardo Da Vinci’s adventure with dissection of the human body are well-known. However, it was Giovanni Battista Morgagni (1682–1771) who gave autopsy the form of a science.
Autopsies are the general tool to find out the cause of death, the medical state before death and other vital information in today’s industry. They have contributed significantly in medical research and helped us gain more insight in human physiology.
2. Trepanation and Trephine
Open surgeries have been prevalent for a long time and they are the most viable solution to numerous medical complications. But opening a skull by drilling a hole in it sounds scary and counter-productive.
However, it is not a taboo in the medical circles.
Trepanning or trepanation is a surgical procedure in which a hole is drilled into the skull to gain access to the dura for treatment of intracranial ailments. It has been practiced from prehistoric times.
In Renaissance era, trepan and trephine (screw-like saw and holder) were used to perform trepanation operations. Trepanation was believed to cure seizures, skull fractures, and mental disorders. No matter how horrifying trepanation may seem, it was a highly successful procedure.
In today’s industry, it is used to treat traumatic brain injury, epidural and subdural hematomas. Trepanation has given way to craniotomy and craniectomy, which are very effective in intracranial surgery procedures.
Trephines have also changed over time and eventually acquired diamond-coated rim for better precision.
The ancient medicine had the theory of ‘humors’ as its basis, which was developed by the Greeks and continued to be the core of medical science for a very long time. Blood was one of the humors and its imbalance was thought to be the cause of fever, headache, apoplexy, etc.
The blood was withdrawn until the patient began to swoon. Bloodletting did produce positive results in some cases, but it was just a side-effect and not a legit cure. A number of methods like cupping, phlebotomy, scarification, etc. were used for bloodletting.
The use of leeches in bloodletting soared high in the Renaissance era and continued well up to 19th century. Modern medicine denies any therapeutic benefit of bloodletting, but it is still used in some special cases.
Blood abnormalities like iron overload and increased RBC volume percentage in the blood (polycythemia) are still cured by bloodletting. On another side, leeches are returning to medical facilities as new age aide.
Leeches are being used to stimulate blood circulation after microsurgery. They are also found to reduce swelling in tissue and promote healing.
A Trocar is a surgical instrument with a bladed/non-bladed tip and a hollow tube called cannula. It derives its name from French word trois-quarts which translates to ‘three-quarters’, referring to three edges coming down to form a perforating end.
The trocar was used to alleviate ascites or abdominal swelling, edema, bloating, etc. The sharp tip was used to puncture the skin which allows a streamlined flow of fluids to leak out.
The trocar has undergone structural and functional changes over time, but the underlying principle remained the same. Nowadays, trocars are used in laparoscopic surgery, embalming, and aspiration.
Trocars have also been used in veterinary treatments involving decompression of bloats in animals.
You would not have seen it coming. Cesarean section has gained immense popularity in the last century. Almost one-third of the total deliveries are C-section in present times.
C-section is a surgical operation to deliver children, in case vaginal delivery is complicated or dangerous. C-section is one of the oldest surgery humans have been carrying out.
We have a lot of accounts of successful C-section in the Renaissance era. However, just like today, C-sections were the extreme approach and not the norm.
The mortality rate in medieval C-sections was very high and people assorted to it as a last resort only. With improved methods and better technology, C-sections begin turning safe in the 20th century.
Vaginal delivery is still the preferred mode, but doctors do not hesitate to perform C-section if need be. The high rate of success has resulted in lower mortality rate worldwide.
6. Maggot Therapy
No matter how disgusting it may seem, maggots are our friends. Our predecessors rightly observed their strange trait of ingesting dead cells and employed them in cleaning wounds.
Their usefulness may seem trivial in the modern age of abundance when you have a large multitude of antibiotics at your disposal, but just imagine how miraculous they may have been to a medieval time soldier.
The use of maggots became widespread in the Renaissance era and helped us till late nineteenth century.
The fancy name for maggot therapy is Larval Debridement Therapy. For the medicinal purpose, disinfected or sterile maggots, packed in a polymer bag, are used.
Maggots secrete proteolytic enzymes which liquefy dead cells in a wound which are then ingested by the maggots and hence render the infected part clean. Recent studies support their effectiveness and they have been sanctioned to be used as ‘medical device’.
Before the advent of antibiotics, an infection in a wound was no less horrible than a deadly disease. A popular approach to treat amputation, incision and other major wound was cauterization.
In the Middle Ages, people simply burned the wounded part with fire. This helped in the prevention of blood loss and closed the amputations.
A metal device called cauter was heated to a red glow and then applied to the affected part. While we no longer brand people just like this, cauterization is still prevalent in different forms.
The modern medical community uses electrocautery and chemical cautery in some medical procedures. They are used to remove warts and for hemostasis.
Some countries still have provision for amputation cauterization as well.
What do you do when you see an abscess or pus in your wound? You obviously go to a doctor who simply drains it.
Pus is considered a sign of infection and hence its removal is important for healing. But this was a ridiculous proposition for the wise of the ancient times. Most successful and renowned physicians of early times distinguished foul-smelling watery pus from thick odorless pus.
They believed that the thick pus was beneficial for wound healing. They termed it ‘good and laudable’ pus. The other type, however, was named vile.
The doctrine of laudable pus was first challenged by Theodoric Borgognoni in 1267. Later, many medical pundits of the Renaissance period questioned the hypotheses and dethroned it for good.
It was later discovered that different forms of pus were the result of two different types of bacteria, viz. Staphylococcus and Streptococcus. Now, we follow the simple rule "Where there is pus, evacuate it", thanks to Renaissance visionaries.
Tracheostomy is a surgery in which an incision is made on the neck to open a direct airway in the windpipe or trachea. It is a highly sought-after procedure when faced with some obstruction in the upper airway.
It is also used to remove secretions from the throat in case of cancer or other diseases. Tracheostomy involves an incision in the neck which pose threat to the carotid artery. This is why early medical experts like Hippocrates advised against performing it.
Despite the warnings, many physicians of ancient and medieval period tried it to help their patients. But most of these surgeries failed.
Hieronymus Fabricius (1533–1619) came up with a new procedure in which he suggested the use of vertical incision and a cannula. This procedure was adopted and further refined by a number of other medieval physicians.
With the advent of antibiotics, better tools and imaging, tracheostomy is a safe and very helpful surgical procedure.
So, what is the one magical cure for constipation, bowel management, headache, sexual dysfunction, asthma, allergy, and fever? Well, medieval physicians believed it was the enema.
An enema is the injection of water or other preparation in the colon of the diseased for a rectal purging. In modern time, it is used for bowel cleansing and transanal irrigation.
It has been successfully used to rehydrate a person when administering IV therapy is not possible.
Enema has been around for a long time, but it gained a vast popularity in the Renaissance era. The French monarch Louis XIV (1638-1715) was fond of this therapy and practiced it daily.
Soon, the practice was widespread in the French upper class and later among the common citizens. The enema was their answer to all sorts of ailments.
This list has taught us that our predecessors were not afraid to stick things in the wrong places if it could save your life. They tried all sort of cutting, drilling, etc. to help the people in need.
So, it is no surprise that they invented catheters as well. The medical procedure of urinary catheterization involves the insertion of a tube in a person’s bladder via the urethra.
The blocked bladder was a common problem in Renaissance era and a very painful one. Catheters helped the patients excrete if they suffered from syphilis, kidney stones, and bladder problems.
In medieval times, catheters were generally made of metals like gold, white lead, and copper. Natural materials like palm leaves and leather were also sometimes used to produce flexible catheters. These catheters could be straight, curved or designed to mimic the curves of the urethra.
Modern catheterization is no different from the ancient practice. We now use latex and silicone catheters which are more safe and flexible. Indwelling catheters and intermittent catheters are two popular types of contemporary catheters.
Modern science has successfully developed cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurovascular, and ophthalmic catheterization as well.
12. Fecal Transplant
We know the list is turning more repulsive with each entry but mind you, we are talking about medieval times. The light of knowledge had just started to wipe out the ignorance.
But we forget that many practices which we took as irrational have found scientific backing and fecal transplant is the new appendage. The accounts of fecal transplant are scarce and not well-recorded.
The enema was used to transplant fresh or fermented stools from a donor to the diseased. It successfully cures diarrhea and other gastrointestinal ailments.
The fecal transplant was used by veterinarians as well to treat animals. Fecal transplant works by restoring the microflora in the colon which eliminates the pathogens.
In modern times, fecal transplant serves as one of the most effective resistance to CDI, irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal conditions.
Cataract surgery has been practiced for a really long time. It had its origin in India and Arabic physicians refined the process. The early surgeries were extremely dangerous and were called ‘cataract couching’.
In this method, a sharp-tipped needle was used to remove the affected lens. Arabic practitioners developed a suction method to operate on cataract.
Jacques Daviel is credited as the first European to extract cataract from eyes. He achieved this feat in 1748 with a procedure similar to cataract couching.
Later advancements favored suction method and later Phacoemulsification and laser surgeries became the norm. It is clear that modern cataract therapy does not resemble the medieval one in any way, but they were Renaissance thinkers who begot fundamental principles of the science.
The 17th and 18th-century scientists like Kepler, Maître-Jan, Brisseau established the fact that lens was not the most important organ of vision.