Dr. Ancient Greece (& Rome)

We get a lot from Ancient Rome and Greece: language, architecture, art, and more. But we also get some of our medical practices and technology from the ancient Romans and Greeks as well, specifically in three areas: emotional health, nerve technology, and animal testing.

Emotional health is really big nowadays. Have you ever been stressed out because of a big test coming up? Furthermore, has anyone told you to stay calm and take a deep breath while you were stressing out for the aforementioned big test? Their advice comes straight from the Romans, who were big on virtue. See, the Romans believed that if you didn’t live a virtuous life, your body would punish you. One sin could lead to bronchitis or an ingrown toenail. This emphasis on a mind/body connection is supported by doctors today. Many agree that emotional balance is important. High-stress situations and intense, unchecked emotions can lead to very real, physical symptoms: stomach ulcers, which are painful, and high blood pressure, which is just as worrying. The bottom line: stay calm! Doctors suggest listening to music, meditating, or doing yoga to maintain an emotional balance. 

Second, let’s talk about nerves. Most people today know what nerves are—they carry signals and information straight to your brain. Back in Roman times, people knew nerves existed. They just hadn’t quite figured out what they could do. Along comes this man named Claudius Galen, a Roman physician—fairly well known, wrote a lot of essays, did a lot of experiments. One day, Galen was experimenting on a pig. He cut it open and wanted to see if the pig would stop breathing if he cut one of its nerves. The pig, thankfully, continued to breathe, but after the experiment, the pig couldn’t squeal. Galen realized that this nerve was responsible for speech, both in animals and humans. Today, we call this nerve the recurrent laryngeal nerve—but since that’s a bit of a mouthful, people call it Galen’s nerve for short. But the reason why this is relevant to our modern lives is because Galen’s breakthrough led to people treating nerves more cautiously. Once Galen realized that this one nerve controlled an important human function, he and others logically came to the conclusion that nerves as a whole were important and shouldn’t be cut. That’s why doctors began to avoid cutting nerves during surgery—because they weren’t just random fibers just hanging out anymore, but actual body parts that needed to be treated carefully. Ever since Galen’s breakthrough, doctors have tried their best to not cut open nerves during surgery. In fact, they’re taking pains to avoid even the most camouflaged ones: scientists are developing technology that uses a polarized beam of light to illuminate nerves that may be hiding in a patient’s lumps of tissue. Imagine waking up the day after a surgery and not being able to talk—scary thought, especially for me, who has an opinion on everything! 

Have you ever picked up a bottle of makeup or shampoo and seen the label “NOT TESTED ON ANIMALS”? These days, there’s been an increasing number of voices affirming that testing products on animals is unethical. In fact, there have been laws put in place to ensure the animal safety. However, while testing products on animals may sound cruel, doctors do use animals for a different kind of research: they use animals in experiments. The practice began in Roman times, when people didn’t have as deep a knowledge of the human body as we do today. The ancient Romans didn’t have today’s fancy technology and X-rays to figure out human anatomy, so their logical solution to the problem, you may think, would be to simply cut open a human and see what was inside. Even today, that may be considered a bit strange, but in Roman times it was absolutely taboo. Cutting open humans was considered wicked, immoral, and a heinous crime—yes, it was actually illegal to study a human body by opening it. Roman physicians reasoned that the best alternative was simply to test on the next best thing: animals closely related to humans, namely apes. And this practice is continued even today: we still perform experiments (although not all of them may involve cutting open the live animal) on species of apes; chimpanzees in particular. We acknowledge today that apes do share a whopping 98% of DNA with human. The phrase “lab rats” may be familiar to you; it’s common knowledge that we also perform a lot of experiments on mice, which share an even more incredible 99% of DNA with us. So maybe the Romans were onto something after all.

Having a surgery today may be nerve-racking, but it’s fairly painless. Besides from not being able to eat for a while before surgery, the patient doesn’t really have much to worry about. Surgeons administer anesthesia to a patient before surgery; sometimes, it may be local anesthesia, which simply numbs the area of operation, but in larger surgeries it’s more likely they will receive general anesthesia. Breathe in some bubble gum-flavored gas, and off you go to Dreamland . . . to wake up from a peaceful sleep only after the operation is over. However, in the ancient Greek and Roman times, general anesthesia didn’t exist. How patients handled surgery I don’t know—maybe they passed out from the pain? Anyway, Greek and Roman doctors did try to help: they gave the patient a combination painkiller and sedative. To make this, they mixed the plant scopolamine (which is a sedative) with the juice of the wild poppy (which you all know from Health class contains opium, the powerful painkiller). This combination made the patient feel drowsy, and they didn’t feel as much pain during surgery. And boom! The first step toward modern anesthetics had been taken.

Another fun fact: flu shots are unpleasant thanks to the Romans. Who likes it when someone sticks a needle in their arm, am I right? Well, if not for the pioneering engineer Ksetibios (you can try to pronounce that, good luck), the syringe would not have been invented. To be totally honest, people don’t really know if Ksetibios’ syringe, invented in Roman Egypt in 280 BCE, was the first ever, but it certainly was the first time use of the syringe was documented. Back then, it was used to extract fluids from the body—namely, pus from boils and pimples. However, today, we use it not only to extract substances (such as blood for a blood test) but also the inject substances (such as that flu shot). However, the idea of vaccination itself didn’t come from the ancient Romans alone—nearly every civilization came up with this idea at some point. The next time you either use a syringe, or someone uses a syringe on you, thank the ancient Romans and Greeks for this handy invention. And let’s be honest here—flu shots may be dreaded, but they’re really not bad.

The Romans! The Greeks! They were two very innovative civilizations, and we owe many of our medical practices to them. Of course, other civilizations contributed as well (for example, plastic surgery comes from ancient India), but in this post I hope I shed some light for you on the how Roman and Greek ideas surround you in something as everyday as listening to music or getting a flu shot. I hope you enjoyed this post and, above all, learned something! Peace out until next time.