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  Medicine (from Latin mederi, ‘to heal’) is the body of information and activity related to the alleviation and cure of illness.

Western medicine can be traced to Greek origins, and the Hippocratic oath remains the declaration of Ethical Intent. Until the the last century medicine was the accumulation of observations about the symptoms and signs of illness, and the natural history of the conditions sufficiently consistent to be given the names of particular diseases. The practitioners of medicine were able to make a diagnosis (to name the illness) and a prognosis (to forecast the likely outcome of the illness). The interventions carried out for the benefit of the patient were again based upon the accumulated experience of the practitioners and were, in the main, derived from folklore (for instance, herbal medicine) or craft sources (for example, surgery, bonesetting).

The more scientific aspects of the roots of medicine began with the science of microbiology. Particular species of bacteria were linked with specific illnesses. In the 19th century, Robert Koch (the discoverer of Mycobacterium Tuberculosis in 1882) defined the four conditions to be met in order to link a microorganism as the cause of a particular illness. The Koch Postulates, as they came to be known, remain valid to this day. Microbiology enabled preventative medicine either by preventing dangerous organisms from getting into people, or by enhancing the person\'s mechanisms for dealing with the invading organism (for example, by vaccination). The next step in the establishment of a scientific basis for medicine was the work of Rudolf Virchow (1821 - 1902). He refined the examination of dead bodies by examining the organs under a microscope and linking observable changes with the illness which led to the death of the patient. This discipline, pathology, remains the scientific grammar of medicine. The third big change was the development of organic chemistry; larger molecules could now be synthesized and tested for possibly beneficial effects on ill people.

The scientific pillars of medicine have continued to be refined. The number and range of known microorganisms have increased almost immeasurably. The causal link of an illness with a microorganism remains a most highly regarded goal, since the search for a useful intervention should become more finite. Pathology, with biochemistry, has continued to discover and link more and subtler aspects of illness. Large and elegant pictures have emerged, though the puzzles are not invariably solved. Biochemistry has also widened the range and number of substances which may be useful for the treatment of illness.

At this time Western medicine is a mixture of models or paradigms of somewhat variable scientific quality. Some parts of medicine (that is, some illnesses) are well understood and described, and the model includes a valid and useful intervention which can cure the illness. Other parts have sufficient clarity to enable alleviation of symptoms, or even some limitation of shortening of lifespan. However, there are still parts of medicine in which science has produced insufficient information to be of value to the person with the illness.

The present situation, in which medicine consists of a series of models of variable quality and utility, is severely limiting. Medical practitioners seem loath to differentiate between situations in which their services may be of incomparable value from those in which they may be less so. Furthermore, the high promise of science as the solver of all problems has created expectation and demand which reinforce the problem.

Chinese medicine dates from roughly the 5th century  BCE, the same time as the pre-Socratic school of philosophy. It derives from a break with the tradition of attributing illness to demons to the linking of health to harmonious coexistence with nature. In classical Chinese philosophy, thoughts and experiences relate by association, correspondences or resonance rather than by the linear cause-effect relationship in Western philosophy. After 1948—when a primary care system had to be provided for the Chinese people—it was decided to use traditional Chinese medicine as part of the system. For political and practical reasons it was necessary to ‘rewrite’ the body of medical knowledge in compartmentalized and linear form, and it was possible to train enough traditional practitioners to provide a useful service. This event provides an interesting example of the utility and the disadvantages of adopting a linear, reductionist and post-Cartesian system of medical thought.

Ayurvedic medicine is a classical Indian diagnostic and therapeutic system which considers people as having different body types and different doshas or metabolic principles. It has had substantial influence in East and West, and remains in use. Many other non-Western traditional medical systems have knowledge of procedures and of the use of natural substances in the treatment of illness. Medicine also includes shamanism and other practices which are outside scientific explanation. TG

See also Daoism; demonism; disease; health; medical ethics; witchcraft.



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