3 for Thursday: 3 Examples of Pre-scientific Medicine in Art

In reading about scientists who discovered a way to turn off autoimmunity, it had me thinking about pre-scientific medicine and the distance we’ve gone in our scientific development. The last century—or the last 50 years even—of medical advancement is astounding when compared to the millennia before it. To give you an idea of how things have changed, below are three examples of pre-scientific medicine as depicted in art.

1) You need this like you need a hole in the head

Trepanning: the art of drilling a hole in the head. Okay, we still drill holes in heads, but for less than guesses about what it can do. In the ancient world it was done for reasons as vast as letting out the evil spirits to relieving pressure. Too bad they also didn’t know about germs.


The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation (c.1488-1516). IMG: Wikicommons

2) Solutions that aren’t funny

Humorism has a long history going back as far as the ancient Greeks.

Hippocrates said there were four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. He said that these correspond to four temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic.

Are you a little too wistful? Melancholic? It’s an imbalance of humors (or, you know, not that at all), which some thought was an open door to Satan.


Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472-1553), Melancholy. IMG: Statens Museum for Kunst.

3) Swim homunculus! Swim!


Illustration of homunculi in sperm, drawn by Hartsoeker in 1695. IMG: Wikicommons.

Homunculus is Latin for “little man.” Alchemists sometimes attempted to create a little human being. Paracelsus (1493-1541) said he was successful in pulling off the experiment, and some scholars say that he was influenced by the pre-existing tradition of the mandrake root.

Mandrake plants, an hallucinogenic narcotic, are found in the eastern Mediterranean and have a shape that looks much like a human being. It was thought that they could improve fertility. In the Bible (Genesis 30), for example, Rachel gives Leah a night with Jacob in exchange for a mandrake. Leah was already out-pacing her in the child-bearing arena and Rachel likely thought a mandrake would improve the odds.

It was later believed by some that mandrakes were the result of the sperm dropped by men hung from the gallows. Paracelsus argued that wherever a man’s seed dropped it could grow to form a monster and the mandrake was just a homunculus. (And thus Paracelsus must have had one mandrake too many).

After Paracelsus, however, Nicolaas Hartsoeker put out his theory (1694) that sperm contained small humans inside.

Swim Homunculus. Swim.


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