Medicine – Superstition to Science

Our talk today was entitled Medicine – Superstition to Science given by Dr Ian Rothwell. Dr Rothwell is retired and now works for the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds. His talk (with slides) charted the history of medicine from early superstitions to the latest modern techniques and equipment. Quite a lot to cover in just over an hour. Earliest attempts at diagnosis involved the slaughtering of an animal and observing its liver. But Hippocrates was the first person to separate medicine from magic and superstition. Medicines, at this time, were produced by the “wise woman” from plants and many modern medicines have their origin in plants e.g. foxgrove, opium poppy. Blood letting was a common practice but there was no proof that this was beneficial and was more likely to kill than cure. Even at the time of the Great Plague (1665) no one knew how it was caused and the remedies provided were by guesswork. By the late 1700s medical people were beginning to analyse the effects of medicine by testing different remedies in controlled experiments. Avoiding Scurvy by eating oranges and lemons was discovered in this way and to some extent observing the immunity of milkmaids to smallpox because of their exposure to cowpox.

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