History of Medicine

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Latest Edit: Iva 2011-05-30 (EDT)

Holistic and vitalistic concepts were held by the earliest known civilizations. In the ancient era people lived in harmonious relationship to their surroundings and the understanding of disease was done by observing nature and how it interplayed with human life.

  • The medical systems of Ayurvedic, Chinese, and Unani medicine were established over 5,000 years ago and are still based on holistic and vitalistic principles. There is the understanding that life, health, and disease follow certain laws and principles that are logical and in order to maintain health of an individual you must maintain health of their environment.
  • Hippocrates (460 – 377 B.C.) who is traditionally considered the father of Western medicine including naturopathic medicine, introduced the concept of a vitalistic and holistic approach to health. The treatment of the Hippocratic physician was based on the treatment of an individual, not a disease, and the treatment of the whole body, not any part of it. Treatment was based on the fundamental assumption that nature, physis, had a strong healing force and tendency of its own, and that the main role of the physician was to assist nature in this healing process, rather than to direct it arbitrarily. Health was a viewed as a state of harmonic mixture of the four body humors, and disease was a state of a faulty mixture. When the body humors were disordered there was the understanding that nature itself would try to re-establish balance through a number of internal processes. The main allies of the physician in assisting nature in this process was diet, exercise, hot baths, and the use of coctions to promote the evacuation of internal wastes. Only if diet failed were drugs used, and surgery was a last resort.
  • The vitalistic concept was introduced by the Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle around 300 B.C. They used the term ‘logos’ or ‘will to live’ to describe the vital principle present in man. Aristotle was a great philosopher who sought to explain the human body’s position in the universe, how it came into being, what its origins were and the meaning of its life. He believed that the “soul” animates and directs the body, but his concept of the soul was not quite the same as the vital principle of later centuries.
  • During the Renaissance period (1300 - 1650) the focus of medicine changed due to advances in technology and science. The functioning of the body started to be understood using the concepts of chemistry and physics. The understanding of anatomy and physiology was greatly enhanced due to dissections and new advances. Scientific principles based on mechanistic and dualistic thinking replaced the vitalistic and holistic concepts.
  • In the 18th century many practitioners returned to the concepts of vitalism and holism. Treatment facilities that utilized diet, exercise, water therapy and herbs started to appear.
  • During the 19th century new discoveries in the fields of quantum physics, energy medicine, systems theory and ecology started to question mechanistic, reductionist and dualist concepts. The pioneers of quantum physics, Erwin Schrodinger, Werner Heisenber, Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli recognized that many aspects of life could not be explained by the restraints of these concepts.