Bookmark this site

www.Christiansofiraq.com is dedicated to bringing the latest news, articles and commentaries about the plight of the Christian Assyrians of Iraq to the attention of the international community.

This site is updated two to three times a week.

  Christians of Iraq
   
 Contact

Historical articles

 Historical pictures

 Photos of Bombed Churches

 Archived Articles

 Home  

Only this link has access to all News articles

 

Assyrian and Babylonian medicine was surprisingly advanced

By William Mullen
Tribune staff reporter
October 24, 2005

In the world's first cities 4,000 years ago, people came to doctors for help with much the same problems they do today--everything from impotence, depression, tuberculosis and cancer to gluten hypersensitivity, hemorrhoids, narcolepsy and migraines.

The treatment they received in ancient Mesopotamia is also familiar in many respects, with medical specialists writing prescriptions for pills, potions and patches that patients would take to a pharmacist.

Studying medical texts inscribed in cuneiform, the first system of writing, Chicago researchers JoAnn Scurlock and Burton Andersen found the physicians of the earliest civilizations were delivering surprisingly sophisticated, knowledgeable and effective health care 2,000 years before Christ lived.

In fact, citizens received treatment superior to what Americans got in George Washington's time, according to the researchers. The first president died in 1799 after doctors bled him in an effort to rectify the "imbalance" of his bodily "humors."

Scurlock and Andersen describe their findings in a newly published scholarly tome titled "Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine." At 900 pages and $150 a copy, it is not a likely bestseller.

But the book may well upend conventional wisdom about the history of medicine, which has always given a hallowed place to ancient Greek physicians and dismissed medicine in ancient Mesopotamia as primitive superstition.

Mesopotamian treatments evolved through hundreds of years of careful experimentation and observation, the authors say. Some are still in use, such as surgically draining the pus that sometimes develops between the lungs and chest wall of pneumonia patients. Their precise instructions to "make an opening in the fourth rib [with] a flint knife" to insert a lead drainage tube pretty well match present-day procedures.

The ancient Greeks, by contrast, subscribed to the idea that the body is composed of four "humors"--yellow bile, black bile, water and phlegm. The Greek model of medicine persisted in Europe and America as late as the 1850s.

"Their best known treatments were bleeding, purging with laxatives, puking and starving," said Andersen, a retired professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We now know, of course, all four of those are injurious and very seldom helpful in any circumstance."

"The Greeks are our intellectual ancestors, but these Mesopotamians are the true ancestors of modern medicine," said Scurlock, a professor of ancient history at Elmhurst College.

In fact, their medicine appears so good that the authors hope to discover overlooked treatments that could be useful in tackling difficult conditions today. "That is the hope," said Andersen. "It's not likely, perhaps, but it is possible."

Scurlock and Andersen's new book, published late this summer by the University of Illinois Press, is based on their studies of nearly 1,000 clay tablets found in modern-day Iraq and covering a period roughly from 2000 B.C. to 150 B.C. Key among them were remnants of a standard diagnostic handbook used for hundreds of years to train and inform doctors. Researchers have been able to reconstruct about half the estimated 3,000 entries it once contained.

If injured or ill, citizens of a city/state like Nineveh or Uruk would seek out a doctor, called an ashipu. Often the physicians were specialists in areas like pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology, neurology, infectious diseases, dentistry, vision and even veterinary medicine.

The doctors were religious figures and worked in temples. They and their patients usually viewed diseases as punishments from various gods, ghosts or demons. In the handbook and other texts, diseases are rarely named; instead they are described and attributed to the "hand" of the god responsible.

One tablet, describing severe arthritis, states: "If he has been sick for five, ten, fifteen [and then] twenty days ... the digits of his hands and his feet are immobilized and so stiff that he cannot open [them] or stand [on them], `hand' of Istar."

Without timepieces, doctors measured pulse by comparing a patient's to their own or to an assistant's. They noted body temperature by feel. Some of their diagnostic procedures continue to be used today, including using metal hammers to tap just below the knee to test reflexes.

As a cure, the doctors prescribed offerings to placate the offending gods and spirits. The offerings, however, took the form of medicinal treatments using plant, animal and mineral material. Treatments were administered with nearly every delivery system used today except for needle injections into the blood system, a method apparently unknown to them.

There were pills and potions, rectal and vaginal suppositories, enemas, medicinally saturated ear tampons and transdermal patches--salves spread on bandages that were bound to the skin. They were careful to keep surgical wounds clean with bandages treated with antiseptics like cedar and ginger.

"A couple of tablets describe night blindness when a patient can see in daylight but is blind at night," Andersen said. "They talk about cutting off a piece of liver and having the patient eat it. Night blindness, we now know, is caused by Vitamin A deficiency, and liver is loaded with Vitamin A."

The doctors had a system of putting plant material to burn on a hooded brazier, then telling the patient to stick his head under the hood to inhale the smoke. Scurlock said she is certain they used medical marijuana in that way.

 

"It seems to have been used to relieve pain, as an antidepressant and nausea," she said. "It seems also to have been used to treat impotence, but they recognized that it was a double-edged sword. It could create desire, but too much could be the cause of impotence."

What they couldn't treat, they were honest about, giving the patient and family the sad but inevitable prognosis.

The diagnostic handbook is almost poetic in its description of the sad hopelessness for a patient with dementia: "his [mind] is continually altered, his words are unintelligible, and he forgets whatever he says, a wind from behind afflicts him; he will die alone like a stranger."

A strong ethical code prohibited doctors from prescribing expensive treatments and magic rituals for patients who were obviously dying, Scurlock said. Instead, doctors were bound to do what they could to ease the patient's suffering, saving families from false hope and unnecessary expense.

The researchers say some diseases appear to be deadlier then than now, such as herpes, which apparently could cover people's bodies with sores and kill them. Some of the described diseases seem to have no modern counterparts.

"Humans since these texts were written have had thousands of years to develop disease immunities," Andersen said. "We may have evolved defense mechanisms that make herpes less serious now than it was then. There may be old diseases we have never seen because we developed immunities that long ago rendered them extinct."

Scurlock and Andersen's book deals mostly with the diagnoses and prognoses of disease by the early physicians, leaving treatments and therapies as the subject for a second volume still being researched.

The first book is so exhaustive and specialized that other scholars have barely begun to refer to it. Gary Beckman, a University of Michigan professor of Near Eastern studies, said his sampling of the contents has been enough to convince him the book will be invaluable to other cuneiform scholars--and also to question some findings.

"Most of these texts were known before, but most have never been available in transliteration before and gathered in one place," Beckman said. "Now it will be easier for others to approach these texts.

"It's difficult to know in fact if their conclusions are correct. Certainly they show there was more to this than mere magical belief. To say it is like scientific medicine might be difficult for others to accept."

The authors said it will prove impossible to figure out the contents of most Mesopotamian medicines because so many were plant-based. Scholars have identified about 200 to 300 Mesopotamian plant names, but that does not tell us what present-day plants they represent.

Without pictures or written descriptions of most of the plants, experts can only try to deduce what the plants are by deciphering the context in which they were used. By that means, Scurlock is fairly certain the Mesopotamians used henna, best known today as a hair dye, in many medicines.

"They didn't get everything," she said. "But it's amazing what they did find. ... It makes you proud to see what human intelligence could do back then without all the machines and computers we have now."

- - -

Mesopotamian medicines

- Ancient name: Sagkidibbu ("affliction of the temples")

Modern condition: Headache

Modern treatment: Salicylic acid (aspirin)

Ancient treatment: "[You crush] together [and sift] adaru-poplar seed [poplar trees contain salicin], aktam, kamantu seed, amharu, kasu, huratu seed and kirban eqli. You decoct it in drawn wine. You scatter roasted grain [flour] and emmer flour on it. [You massage it into leather]. You shave his [head]. If you bandage him with it, he should recover."

- Ancient name: Nahshatu

Modern condition: Abnormal uterine bleeding

Modern treatment: Estrogen

Ancient treatment: "You char and grind date kernels [which contain estrogens], wrap it in a tuft of wool and insert it into her vagina."

- Ancient name: Kuraru

Modern condition: Ringworm

Modern treatment: Topical therapy with antifungal agents

Ancient treatment: "You plaster his head with cow urine. You wash it with uhhulu qarnqanu infusion [liquid soap] and kasu juice. You shave his head. You dry, crush and sift [these] 11 plants: shunu seed, pillu seed, qutru seed, kamantu [probably henna, a potent fungicide experimentally proven to be effective for ringworm], uriyanu [leaves], [...], rushrushshu, tsatsumtu, kurkanu, tigilu, mirishmaru and kalbanu. You mix it with first quality beer and vinegar. You bandage his head with it and do not take it off for three days."

Source: Dr. Richard H Beal, HittiteDictionary Project, Oriental Institute

----------


----

           

Who are the Christians of Iraq?

October 

Assyrian and Babylonian medicine was surprisingly advanced 10, 24, 05

What's in a Name? 10, 12, 05 

Draft constitution denies equal rights, say Iraq's Christians  10, 22, 05

Rejection of Iraqi Referendum Possible as Nineveh Vote Fraud Reviewed 10, 21, 05 

Rosie Malek-Yonan's Schedule of The Crimson Field Book Tour 10, 20, 05

TURKEY DECRIES the Assyro-Chaldean MONUMENT IN FRANCE 10, 20, 05

Vote Figures for Crucial Ninveh Province Don't Add Up 10, 19, 05

Iraq Constitution: Bad news for Christians  10, 19. 05

Assyrian students unite 10, 19, 05

Iraq bishops ready to seek help from Pope  10, 19, 05

Charter vote resonates with Valley Iraqis Likely passage gives many hope 10. 18. 05  

Dividing the Chaldeans from the Assyrians by the Iraqi Constitution  10, 18, 05

A monument in France dedicated to the Remembrance of Assyro-Chaldean massacres by the Ottoman Turks. 10, 17, 05

Swing state' of Nineveh may be moving in favour of constitution 10, 15, 05 

Iraq votes for the Constitution and for its future 10, 14, 05

Forgotten victims - Iraqi Christians who speak the language of Jesus  10, 14, 05

Mgr Sako: people in Kirkuk have not read the constitution but will vote  10,13, 05

Terrorism strikes all Iraqis, says Patriarch 10, 13, 05

Assyriska a national football team without a country  10, 12, 05

Referendum: 'Yes' in Kurdistan and Southern cities and 'No' in Kirkuk, al Anbar and Diala 10, 12, 05

Chaos depriving Towns from Voting - The Minorities Fear the Domination of Islamic Parties10, 12, 05 

Bas-reliefs of winged goddesses discovered in western Iran 10, 12, 05

Immigration of Iraqi Chaldeans Abroad Passes through Jordan 10, 12, 05

Baghdadis tell their stories  10, 12, 05

Assyrialogist Henry Saggs Dies at 84 10, 10, 05

Letter by Ms. Jacqueline Zomaya The Assyrian representative to the Iraqi National Assembly 10, 10, 05

The Kurds are "cleansing" their domain ­ and provoking a civil war in Iraq  10, 09, 05

Nestorian label "imposed unjustly upon the Assyrians"  10, 08, 05

Iran's Assyrian MP-Felicitation to the Supreme Leader  10, 8, 05

Syriac Manuscripts from the Vatican Library: Volume 1 10, 08, 05

Sunnis Threaten Referendum Boycott if Rules Not Changed  10, 05, 05

Helping the Iraqi refugees in Jordan  10, 04, 05

Final Draft of Iraqi Constitution  10, 03, 05

Two More Assyrian Children Orphaned  10, 02, 05

Discoveries of the Assyrian antiquities in Syria 10, 01, 05 

Sectarian Strife tears apart Baghdad's Neighborhoods 10, 01, 05

September

POLITICS-IRAQ: Kurd's Voting Shenanigans Cloud Key Province 9, 28, 05 

Church in Iraq Helps Rebuild New Orleans Parish; U.S. Relief Agency Bridges Partnership 9, 28, 05

The Armenian Genocide And The Assyrian Factor 9, 28, 05

Interview with the Writer and the Historian Rosie Malek-Younan 9, 28, 05

Assyrian Cultural Festival in Ceres CA. 9, 27, 05

Swedish Radio's Decision to End Turkish Language Broadcasts 9, 27, 05

Assyrian Refugees Face Harsh Discrimination in Greece 9, 26, 05

A cry of help by the Assyrians 9, 26, 05

samples of songs by various Eastern and Western Assyiran singers. 9, 24, 05

USAID: Iraq Reconstruction and Humanitarian Relief  9, 24, 05

4 Assyrians Killed in Assassination Attempt on Former Iraq Assyrian Minister  9, 23, 05 

Seminar in Stokholm About Seyfo ( world war one massacres)  9, 22, 05

Iraq chaos threatens ancient faith 9, 22, 05 

The Crimson Field Previews 9, 17, 05  

Treatment of Horses" by the Assyrian scientist of the 13th century Faraj  9, 21, 05 

A New Satellite T.V. Program From San Jose 9, 20, 05

English translation of the ancient Mesopotamian tablets  9, 20, 05

First Nestorian [Church of the East] search engine goes online 9, 19, 05

Download Assyrian songs.by ReeMon 9, 18, 05 

Letter from the 'Save the Assyrian Campaign'. 9, 16, 05 

Growing Opposition to Dividing the Assyrians 9, 16, 05

Books by Assyrian writers 9, 15, 05

English cardinal warns of Iraqi constitution  9, 14, 05

Brutality Against Christians in Iraq Continues 9, 13, 05

John Kanno for Congress  9, 12, 05

Reply to Culomnist Ken Rudin   9, 12, 05

Assyrians: Wine-producing season starts in Midyat 9, 11, 05

Iraqi Christians cautious about new constitution 9, 11, 05

Assyrian Human Rights Documentation Project Launched in Canada 9, 6, 05

Fire Consumes Over 500 Assyrian Shops in Baghdad Suburb 9, 6, 05 

Education in Armenia for Assyrians and other Minorities 9, 6, 05

Capital of Musasir gov't in northwest Iran Discovered  9, 5, 05

The Assyrian Democratic Organization Rejects Iraq's Constitution 9, 4, 05

The Ordeal of the Christians in Arab countries 9, 3, 05

August

"Arab Christians"? Not in My View  8, 31, 05

Emotional Funeral for Assyrian Murdered By Kurds in Iraq 8, 31, 05 

Risking it all for a song 8, 31, 05

Iraq's draft constitution and the ChaldoAssyrians 8, 30, 05

Kurdish Reprisal Attacks Against Assyrian Christians in Iraq  8, 27, 05

For Basra's Christians, Hussein era the good old days 8, 28, 05

Assyrian Restuarant in Chicago Reminds Iraqis of Home 8, 28. 05

Assyrians in Northern Iraq terrorized by the Kurdish Mlitia 8, 27, 05

Iraq's Proposed constitution could lead to fragmented state. 8, 27, 05

Conflicts between Kurds and the Shabak 8, 26, 05

New Iraq constitution may throw women's rights into Stone Age  8, 26, 05

Assyrians of Telesqof demonstrate against being divided in the Constitution 8, 25. 05

Assyrian Demonstrators Voice their Concern about the New Iraqi Constitution 8, 24, 05

A letter from the Rep.of Shabak in the National Assermbly  8, 24, 05

New Iraq constitution must protect Christians 8, 22, 05 

The text of the latest Proposed Iraq Constitution  8, 22, 05

Outside View: Who lost Iraq?  8, 22, 05

Iraq's Religious Minorities Concerned About Islamic Constitution 8, 22, 05  

Iraq TV's 'Cops' breaks new ground  8, 21, 05  

Young Catholics Gather in Baghdad  8, 20 05

Iraqis Squeezed Out By Kurdish Expansion, Muslim-Centric Constitution 8, 20, 05

A Memoradum from the Christians of Iraq to the Drafters of the Constitution. 8, 20, 05

Shafting Nineveh: The Fate of Iraqi Christians 8, 20, 05

Plea for Assyrian Christians and Iraqi minorities 8, 18, 05

Undemocratic aspects of the new Iraqi constitution draft 8, 17, 05

Iraqis vent rage on call-in TV after bombs kill 43 8, 17, 05

Iraq's Non-Muslims' Constitution Fears  8, 17, 05

Kurdish Gunmen Open Fire on Demonstrators in North Iraq 8, 16, 05

Their suffering continues 8, 14, 05

IRAQ: Focus on constitutional concerns 8, 14, 05

Photos form homeland  8, 14, 05

Despite Turmoil, Christians Place Faith in New Iraq 8, 13, 05 

Iraqi-American Translators: The Untold Story 8, 12, 05

Life in Ankawa 8, 12, 05

Why Torah's Hebrew script was Changed to the square Assyrian script 8, 11, 05

Assyrian Restaurant in Chicago  8, 10, 05

Speech at the Commonwealth Club of California By Fred Aprim 8, 10, 05

KURDS TAKE A HARD-LINE STANCE ON IRAQI CONSTITUTION  8, 10, 05

72nd Assyrian American National Convention   8, 09, 05

Unresolved Iraqi Constitutional Points  8, 09, 05

Information wanted for Upcoming Documentary about Iraqi women 8, 09, 05

Assyrian Objection to the Nationality Law 8, 06, 05

Iraqi Christians Remember Church Bombings One Year Later 8, 05 05

Looted history  8, 05, 05 

Book Release: Rosie Malek-Yonan's "The Crimson Field" 8, 05, 05 

Iraq Must Avoid a Rollback of Rights 8, 04, 05 

Nina Shea: Rule of law, rule of Islam  8, 4, 05

Iraqis in U.S. Won't Vote on Constitution 8, 03, 05

Bush's Global War on Christians 8, 01, 05

An Open Letter to Patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka I  8, 01, 05 

Democracy could struggle in Islamic Iraq  7, 30, 05

Assyrian Granny Shimmes's Contribution to Rendezvous of Civilizations 7, 29, 05

House amends funding bill to help Iraqi Christians 7, 29, 05

Iraq draft constitution fails to protect religious, human rights, USCIRF says  7, 29, 05

 

 Archives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

web counters