The Four Humors and Stem Cells: Science, Then and Now

The field of medical science and research has not always been as packed with information for the general public as it is today. But did you know that people once believed science to be a way of understanding the universe?

The root of ‘science’ in Middle English is ‘knowledge’, a general term which mirrors the broad and holistic approach held even by the doctors of antiquity. We’ve come a long way from the broad classifications of the ancients, but are we also returning to them? Read on for a brief history of scientific medical research itself.

The Middle Ages – Four Times The Humor

A carryover from the Ancient Greeks, people of the Middle Ages believed that the human body contained four humors or fluids: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Each humor was related to an element which served as the basis for matter: Earth for black bile, Fire for yellow bile, Air for blood, and Water for phlegm. Man was made of these four vital elements through the bodily fluids. If your fluids were out of balance, you were also out of balance with the universe itself. Books of astrology such as the Vademecum, relating the human body to the stars, were developed at this time and were considered to be highly legitimate research texts. If consulting the stars over a case of tuberculosis sounds a bit odd, you are clearly not a medieval physician.

Paracelsus (1493 – 1591) – A Bridge Between Mysticism And Modern Medicine

Although if he were working today, Paracelsus might be considered something of a faith healer, in his day he introduced the scientific idea of observations of nature as paramount, and of the value of minerals and chemistry in health. Paracelsus also got drunk a lot and other researchers found him mouthy. They obviously took him seriously enough to become annoyed by him, which is not surprising today, as most now hail him as a founder of modern medical research.

The Enlightenment (1700s) – A World of No-See-Ums

The invention of the compound microscope around 1670 by Dutchman Leeuwenhoek was the most outstanding marker on the road to modern medicine. The use of this little gadget led to the discovery of bacteria and yeast. Perhaps all these worrying new unseeables were a bit upsetting, leading to panicked renunciations of a meaningful life. Descartes declared that animals lived without a soul, and physician Julien Offray de Mettrie applied Descarte’s idea to humans as well in his work Man a Machine.Researchers picked up the tune and decided that scientific objectivity was the wave of the future.

The 1800s – the War Against Disease

Having learned about disease on a microscopic level, and having achieved a mechanistic approach to the body, rational cures took the reins. Researchers attempted to stem the tide of disease largely through germ warfare and surgery. A wide arsenal of drugs and anaesthetics was developed. Pharmacology as a field of medicine was established at this time. Most modern drugs, illegal or prescription, would never have existed without the work done then. Clinical research, scientific journals and associations flourished during this period. For better or for worse we owe aspirin, cocaine and the modern pill to people working then.

Blood Stem Cell Research

As disease epidemics came under greater control, researchers focused not merely on preventing transmissible diseases but also on halting cancers. A wide variety of technologies for looking closely at the human body was developed in the latter half of the twentieth century, such as blood stem cell research. The insertion of blood stem cells into bone marrow can cure various blood cancers. Blood stem cells are used to produce a wide variety of miracle cures nowadays, most of them cancer-related.

Overall, the point of medical research is pretty much the same as it was hundreds of years ago: health. But it’s come to pass that health is now seen as not something in our stars but hidden deep inside us. As for me, I’ll take the aspirin, but I’ll still keep in mind my four humors!