Were the ancients fools?

Often in the discussion of cult medicines such as homeopathy, acupuncture, and reiki, supporters fall back on “the wisdom of the ancients”. This raises a question. Since “the ancients” had it wrong (i.e. their belief systems could not effectively treat disease), were they just stupid?

Any of my historian readers already know the answer, but it’s worth going over.

Our forebears were neither more nor less intelligent that we (unless you go back about 3 or 4 million years—that gets rather dicey). They were literate, intelligent, and damn good thinkers. They just had limits to their ability to investigate their environments.

Let’s take an example from an English physician living in Paris in the mid-18th century, during the time inoculation against smallpox was spreading, but vaccination had not yet been invented.


By way of background, this new (to Europe) practice actually comprised many different practices, but the basics were the same: take a bit of material from a smallpox pustule, and rub, snort, or inject it into the skin of a healthy person. The healthy person would then develop a (hopefully) mild case of smallpox that would protect them from epidemic smallpox, which had a high rate of mortality and disfigurement.

Dr. Cantwell, an English physician in Paris, had some concerns about this procedure (translation unfortunately mine):

It is facts, and not the promise of them, and reason, that must truly interest the public. If they respond to the promises of the Inoculators, inoculation will establish itself despite all that can be said to show the danger and inutility of it. If, on the contrary, the facts directly dispute their promises, the public will be disabused and inoculation fall by the wayside.

As for my part, I would say that if among the Inoculators there is found even one who responds pertinently to the facts which I allege, I will be the first to swear to my defeat, and will side with these gentlemen. If not, justice demands that one always allow that new facts could be gathered against this method, and they must be rendered public with all pertinent arguments.

It is not enough to say that of one hundred persons inoculated, only one or two perished in the first forty days. It is a question of knowing FIRST if Inoculation gives lifelong protection from smallpox, and if one can be killed by a natural smallpox infection which may follow the artificial one…. SECOND it is necessary to know, again, if inoculation might accidentally spread smallpox, in the right conditions causing more people to perish of this contagion than would be saved by its application…(emphasis mine)

Dr. Cantwell was basically one of the earliest opponents of immunoprophylaxis (prevention of disease via inoculation or vaccine). Was he a crank?

Well, not by this excerpt. He asks the same questions that we do today regarding a vaccine: what is the mortality from the procedure, does it actually protect, and could it possibly spread disease.

This is very “modern” thinking. It turns out that Dr. Cantwell was both right and wrong in his apprehension about inoculation. There were, of course, no standard practices, and people were hurt, but in general, it tended to save lives during epidemics.

Thankfully, the much safer practice of vaccination came along, largely building on the knowledge of inoculation, and the discovery of healthy milk maids. (What was Jenner doing hanging out with the milk maids?)

So, the ancients did indeed possess wisdom; they just didn’t have all the tools to apply it, including statistics, microbiology, and a well-developed germ theory of disease.

It would be wise to remember that our forebears, though smart, didn’t have the tools we have today. To rely on their intelligence but eschew modern knowledge makes us look like the fools.


  1. T. Bruce McNeely

    Hey, back in the old days, most people were disfigured by smallpox. Obviously Jenner hung out with the milkmaids because they WUZ HAWT!
    The people who cite “ancient wisdom” always struck me as (shall we say) hard of thinking. No doubt these same people commute to work by bullock cart or write checks on clay tablets.

  2. Talking about disfigurement, that link takes me to a login page. Is it a picture so horrible that the general public must be protected?

  3. Hmmm…time to revamp the editing skillz…you’ll be sorry though.

  4. Oldfart

    I am curious about why, since we became homo sapiens sapiens, what, 100,000 years ago? it took us so long to get to where we are. Do I think scientifically (if I, as a layman, actually do) because of my culture or because it is part of my genetic heritage? Once you start thinking that way, does it take that long to develop a technical civilization and, if so, why? Were some really ancient geniuses sitting around frustrated because no one could make them the microscope they imagined? I, personally, wonder what happened and if scientific thought is a relatively recently learned skill.

  5. Scientific thought isn’t new, but technology has improved. Why particular technologies have improved at particular rates are interesting thoughts. If I recall my anthropology, there was a period of time when humans did not progress very much for tens of thousands of years, then ?environmental pressures (ice age?) started us working. But my anthro friends will have to fill in the details.

    Has to more modern history, the Enlightenment in the West was a big deal, learning to refine metals, make glass, grind lenses and other skills helped build science. But I’m not a historian of science, so…

  6. There is an interesting book by Jared Diamond that covers at least some of the history of how technology developed.

  7. That’s a good read…highly recommended (where’s my 5 bucks, Diamond??)

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