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A History of Science
Williams 
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter IX
Greek science of the alexandrian or hellenistic period
Herophilus and Erasistratus
 Williams
The catholicity of Ptolemy's tastes led him, naturally enough, to cultivate the biological no less than the physical sciences. In particular his influence permitted an epochal advance in the field of medicine. Two anatomists became famous through the investigations they were permitted to make under the patronage of the enlightened ruler. These earliest of really scientific investigators of the mechanism of the human body were named Herophilus and Erasistratus. These two anatomists gained their knowledge by the dissection of human bodies (theirs are the first records that we have of such practices), and King Ptolemy himself is said to have been present at some of these dissections. They were the first to discover that the nerve- trunks have their origin in the brain and spinal cord, and they are credited also with the discovery that these nerve-trunks are of two different kinds - one to convey motor, and the other sensory impulses. They discovered, described, and named the coverings of the brain. The name of Herophilus is still applied by anatomists, in honor of the discoverer, to one of the sinuses or large canals that convey the venous blood from the head. Herophilus also noticed and described four cavities or ventricles in the brain, and reached the conclusion that one of these ventricles was the seat of the soul - a belief shared until comparatively recent times by many physiologists. He made also a careful and fairly accurate study of the anatomy of the eye, a greatly improved the old operation for cataract.

With the increased knowledge of anatomy came also corresponding advances in surgery, and many experimental operations are said to have been performed upon condemned criminals who were handed over to the surgeons by the Ptolemies. While many modern writers have attempted to discredit these assertions, it is not improbable that such operations were performed. In an age when human life was held so cheap, and among a people accustomed to torturing condemned prisoners for comparatively slight offences, it is not unlikely that the surgeons were allowed to inflict perhaps less painful tortures in the cause of science. Furthermore, we know that condemned criminals were sometimes handed over to the medical profession to be "operated upon and killed in whatever way they thought best" even as late as the sixteenth century. Tertullian[1] probably exaggerates, however, when he puts the number of such victims in Alexandria at six hundred.

Had Herophilus and Erasistratus been as happy in their deductions as to the functions of the organs as they were in their knowledge of anatomy, the science of medicine would have been placed upon a very high plane even in their time. Unfortunately, however, they not only drew erroneous inferences as to the functions of the organs, but also disagreed radically as to what functions certain organs performed, and how diseases should be treated, even when agreeing perfectly on the subject of anatomy itself. Their contribution to the knowledge of the scientific treatment of diseases holds no such place, therefore, as their anatomical investigations.

Half a century after the time of Herophilus there appeared a Greek physician, Heraclides, whose reputation in the use of drugs far surpasses that of the anatomists of the Alexandrian school. His reputation has been handed down through the centuries as that of a physician, rather than a surgeon, although in his own time he was considered one of the great surgeons of the period. Heraclides belonged to the "Empiric" school, which rejected anatomy as useless, depending entirely on the use of drugs. He is thought to have been the first physician to point out the value of opium in certain painful diseases. His prescription of this drug for certain cases of "sleeplessness, spasm, cholera, and colic," shows that his use of it was not unlike that of the modern physician in certain cases; and his treatment of fevers, by keeping the patient's head cool and facilitating the secretions of the body, is still recognized as "good practice." He advocated a free use of liquids in quenching the fever patient's thirst - a recognized therapeutic measure to-day, but one that was widely condemned a century ago.


 

 

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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.