Today, we visit a 2400-year-old clinic. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
In his treatise on ancient
healing, Guido Majno includes a chapter titled
Iatros. That's the old Greek word for
physician. It leads to modern words like
pediatrics, the medical treatment of children.
Medieval medical alchemists called their practice,
iatrochemistry -- the chemistry of healing.
Majno takes us to an iatreion, an
ancient Greek clinic. It was only for outpatients
because hospitals had yet to be invented. Reading
old works, like Hippocrates and Xenephon, along
with the archeological record, he pieces together
what might've gone on during a typical day in 400
BC. Ten patients come to his iatreion.
Each is treated according to the practice of the
First, a carpenter with a slashed foot gushing
blood: The doctor (the iatros) wraps
the edges of the wound with a cold wet bandage. He
wraps the man's head in a hot towel. That draws
blood from the wound toward the head. When it keeps
bleeding, he applies a tourniquet. The few
Hippocratic doctors who used tourniquets knew the
wrong rhythm of tightening and release could lead
to gangrene. But tourniquets were tricky and they
fell out of use. They didn't re-emerge as part of
regular emergency procedure until the 1500s.
The next patient is a woman with a round ulcer on
her ankle. The doctor widens the ulcer -- cuts it
into a square shape. That's because wounds pull
inward as they heal. A square wound first goes to a
four-cornered star shape, then to an X shape. A
circle has no corners from which to work inward.
The iatros didn't have sutures. He had
to help nature draw the wound closed.
An athlete shows up with a dislocated shoulder. The
iatros lays him on the floor and puts
a leather ball in his armpit. Then, lying on the
floor, the iatros tugs on the arm
while he holds the ball in place with his heel.
That treatment is still done.
But not everything makes sense. When the
iatros treated the carpenter with the
cut foot, he also bled him. Still, that was no more
senseless than procedures I've seen used, and then
dropped, in my own lifetime. Some procedures are
folly we've yet to recognize.
The last patient is a slave from Scythia. He strips
off his shirt to reveal infected wounds from a
recent whipping. The iatros cleans the
back, cools the infection with a celery plaster,
and applies a zinc ointment -- like ointments you
might buy at the drugstore. Of course, healing will
largely be done by the slave's own natural
processes. But so too is most of our own healing.
Suppose you were taken back in time 2400 years to
ancient Greece, and you were hurt while you were
there. You could do worse than the local
iatros. But then, as now, you'd be
foolish if you didn't question all that was being
done to you. That brings us to another word derived
from the old Greek root. The word
iatrogenics refers to a medical
problem that is caused by medical treatments.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds