Were the ancients fools?

I’m off to the west coast (of Michigan) for a few days, and if I don’t blog, I shall die…or something. So I have a few posts from my old blog to share with you.

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. This is 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 (hopefully), develop a 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.