Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sharing of Cultures and The Art of Healing

By Richard P. Holm MD

The earliest records of medical teaching came from very ancient Egypt, Babylonia, India, and China. Accounts of experimental and scientific thought, however, first began in Greece and expanded into the medical teaching of Hippocrates and his students. Medical learning then spread to ancient Rome where the word medicine was derived from the Latin “ars medicina,” meaning the art of healing, and this knowledge spread throughout the Roman Empire.

Alas, the ancient knowledge of the Mediterranean would have been lost with the burning of the Library of Alexander and the sacking of Rome except for the collections saved in the Arab world.

Probably the first medical school developed one thousand years ago in the southern Italian coastal city of Salerno. It happened because of a monk named Constantine the African, who understood Arabic and other languages of the time. He could translate, back into Latin, the surviving ancient Grecian and Roman medical texts, which were then written in Arabic and had been invigorated by more than a hundred years of medical practice in Arabia. So it was that in a small library in a Salerno monastery, ancient medical knowledge became accessible once again to the Western world.

Reinvigorated with these translations, the medical practitioners of Salerno became the best care providers of the medieval world, and, in turn, drew the sick in hope of discovering a cure and students seeking to learn the art of medicine. Over time, the sharing and learning accelerated. Salerno thus became known as the “Town of Hippocrates,” where Greek and Latin medical traditions merged with Arab and also Jewish wisdom.

The coming-together of different cultures and information led to a wonderful augmentation and synergy of medical knowledge, where men and women of mixed backgrounds reveled in learning how to care for the sick in a medieval world. Of course this golden time ended by forces of political and cultural hatred, but the knowledge that almost had been lost still survived. Some of it is taught in medical schools today.

May we always remember the lessons of the past, the value of recording knowledge, and the wisdom of sharing cultures.