The History of Physicians / Doctors

by Ryan Winter on June 18, 2009

Even in the worst of times, going into medicine is a pretty safe bet. Good thing, since the profession has existed in one form or another for more than 25,000 years.

Check out the history of being a doctor, from the Stone Age to the Information Age…It turns out that the job of being a physician was more like a hobby the farther back you go…Surgical spoon anyone?

Prehistoric “doctors”: 25,000 BC +
prehistoric skull trepanationThe first “healers” were chronicled in cave paintings in what is now France. The paintings were radiocarbon-dated as far back as 27,000 years ago and depicted people using plants for medicinal purposes. This is the first recorded instance of what eventually developed into the first medical knowledge base, passed down through tribes. Trepanation – puncturing the skull to relieve pain, was done thousands of years ago with spotty success…

Treat like an Egyptian: Surgery 5,000 years ago
egypt_medicine2Not only were the ancient Egyptians some of the healthiest people on Earth (Homer – of Odyssey fame, not the one in the ancient Egypt Simpsons episode – credited their public health care system, as well as the dry climate) but Egyptians also performed some of the first recorded surgery: root canal (some evidence suggests teeth may have been drilled as early as 9,000 years ago in India.) Back then, being a doctor involved mastery of supernatural texts as well as later being trained in anatomy and diagnosis.

“Take two frogs and call me in the morning”
babylon_medicineSome 3,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians may have been the first to offer prescriptions. Babylonian health “experts” also had a diagnostic text that featured a number of symptoms and treatments that had worked previously.

Greece and the birthplace of medical ethics
hippocrates_drawingInfluenced by Egyptian and Babylonian medicine, the famed Greek “physician” Hippocrates wrote the Hippocratic Corpus which is a collection of around seventy early medical works from ancient Greece strongly associated with Hippocrates and his students. Most famously, Hippocrates invented the Hippocratic Oath for physicians, which is still relevant and in use today.

This probably won’t kill you…
persian_anatomyBy the time medicine was being practiced in the 9th century Middle East, doctors started practicing in what you could call hospitals. Around this time, doctors generally knew about how to use catgut and forceps, plaster, ligature, surgical needle, saw, scalpels, and the ever calming, surgical spoon. Basically at this point, medicine was more likely to help you than harm you.

Medieval Europe and the first med schools
17th_century_anatomy12th century Italy saw the emergence of universities and the first medical schools. At this point, being a doctor depended less on the “gospel” of pre-existing medical texts and more on applying those texts and others to a doctor’s individual experiences in the field. The ability to reliably affect a patient’s health was still hit & miss.

19th Century and the explosion of science
freudOver the last few hundred years, doctors came to benefit from the use of developing sciences such as chemistry. Physicians began to access other disciplines to help heal patients. They also began to draw on multiple facets of medicine to cure ailments. Among the goodies at the disposal of 19th Century doctors: knowledge of evolution, psychiatry, the beginnings of genetics, and immunology.

Just say yes to drugs: Modern medicine begins
doctors_surgeryAfter 1920, physicians no longer needed to ask permission of the church before starting their practice or performing surgery. Finally, reliable prescription drugs, and penicillin began to curb sickness before surgery or other last resorts were necessary. Modern surgery was coming of age. The last lobotomy to treat schizophrenia was done in 1970.

The modern doctor
modern_surgery_robotTo be sure, modern medicine is all the things people expect when they visit a hospital, but a modern doctor in the developed world is as much of a super hero or science fiction character as friendly sawbones. The “utility belt” of tools at a modern doctor’s disposal includes surgical lasers and robots, high-powered magnetic imagers and networked data streams.

The future: robots, remote patients, wireless data feeds..
doctors_dnaBetween technology and scarcity of actual doctors, it’s likely that future physicians will see patients any way they can: That could mean remotely (from the other end of a screen or robot) or as part of an assembly-line process (robot assistants actually do most of the work, with doctors coming in at the last step to confirm the diagnosis or perform the trickiest part of the surgery.) Also, medicine will be tailored to each patient’s individual genome, administered both by nano-scale and sports-stadium-sized apparati, across time zones and even on other worlds.

Now isn’t that worth a dozen years of school?


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

sergio 11.10.11 at 5:40 pm


Edward Nguyen 02.05.13 at 8:42 pm

I Love You!!!
Thank you SOOOO much for this.
I needed History of a Doctor.

Josh B 02.11.13 at 10:42 pm

This will be a huge help on my essay on physicians.

easybib 03.18.16 at 9:12 am

this is not even good

Elizabeth Swor 03.18.16 at 5:10 pm

I am trying to find the first woman Doctor in Chicago or the first woman doctor in California, she is my great aunt. I think her last name was Bishop and maybe her first Elizabeth. It would be the mid 1800 ‘s or late 1800. I have a picture of her and would like to know if you can help please let me know. Thanks Elizabeth Swor

Cordelia 04.27.16 at 1:38 pm

Please keep thiorwng these posts up they help tons.

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Dominique Hamilton 10.27.16 at 4:44 am

Sadly enough, this is poorly written and under researched.
Just hinting at things and not really explaining anything in any dept

Nike AKANNI 11.23.16 at 11:40 am

Only the countries were mention, what about the name of the first doctor.


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