Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities

© 1999 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 1999 Ancient Mesopotamian Medicine

The first written records, which came from ancient Babylon and Egypt, contain the earliest references to medical care,obviously codifying earlier practices no record of which has survived. The medicine of the Sumerians of Mesopotamia from ca. 3000 BC was primarily religious. The Mesopotamian peoples saw the hands of the gods in everything. Disease was caused by spirit invasion, sorcery, malice, or the breaking of taboos, and sickness was both judgement and punishment. An Assyrian text circa 650 BC describes epileptic symptoms within a demonological framework: "If at the time of the possession, his mind is awake, the demon can be driven out; if at the time of his possession his mind is not so aware, the demon cannot be driven out." Headaches, neck pain, intestinal ailments and impotence were read as omens. The appropriate remedy was to identify the demons responsible and expel them by spells or incantations.

But medicine also had an empirical component, with some sicknesses being ascribed to cold, dust and dryness, putrefaction, malnutrition, venereal infection and other natural causes. The Babylonians drew on an extensive pragmatic materia medica -- some 120 mineral drugs and twice that number of vegetable items are listed in surviving tablets. Alongside various fats, oils, honey,* wax, and milk, were many active ingredients that included mustard, oleander and hellebore (a plant in the buttercup family that is a violent gastrointestinal poison, hence acts as a powerful purgative, though it is lethal in high doses). Colocynth, senna and castor oil were used as laxatives, while wound dressings were compounded with dried wine dregs, salt, oil, beer, juniper, mud or fat, blended with alkali and herbs. With the discovery of distillation, the Mesopotamians made essence of cedar and other volatile oils. Turpentine, asafetida, henbane, myrrh, mint, poppy, fig, and mandrake are also mentioned. Dog dung and other fecal ingredients were used to drive off demons.

* Honey also was known to the ancients as a preservative agent. The corpses of military leaders who had died far from home and needed to be transported long distances were often immersed in honey to prevent decomposition. Famous historical examples from later Greek and Roman times include the Spartan commander Agesilaus (d. 362 BC) and Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC).2333,3259

Surgical conditions such as wounds, fractures and abscesses were also treated by Mesopotamian surgeons. Practitioners were priests, and after 2000 BC, they were ruled by the strict laws included in the Code of Hammurabi. The Code laid down rewards for success and severe punishment for failure, and contained laws relating to medical practice which show that medicine and surgery were highly organized professions. Fees were regulated on a sliding scale of rewards based on the patient's rank, and severe penalties were laid down for failure:

"Concerning the wounds resulting from operations it is written: if a physician shall produce on anyone a severe wound with a bronze operating knife and cure him, or if he shall open an abscess with the operating knife and preserve the eye of the patient, he usually shall receive 10 shekels of silver [more than a craftsman's annual pay]; if it is a slave, his master shall usually pay 2 shekels of silver to the physician."

"If a physician shall make a severe wound with an operating knife and kill him, or shall open an abscess with an operating knife and destroy the eye, his hands shall be cut off."

"If a physician shall make a severe wound with a bronze operating knife on the slave of a free man and kill him, he shall replace the slave with another slave. If he shall open an abscess with a bronze operating knife and destroy the eye, he shall pay the half of the value of the slave."

The Hammurabic Code also mentions the Gallabu, or barber-surgeons, whose province was minor surgery, including dentistry and the branding of slaves. If Herodotus (ca. 485-425 BC) may be believed, Babylonian medicine must have declined in the 5th century BC. Herodotus states that there were no physicians, but that the people brought their sick into the marketplace in order that passers-by might make suggestions or offer cures.


Last updated on 5 February 2003