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.


  1. James Pannozzi

    Excuse me but I will most strenuously object to the characterization of Acupuncture and Homeopathy as cult medicine.

    In addition, the author, by making such a statement, shows a complete lack of knowledge of the history of medicine in China, the only country in the world to have preserved a great number of its ancient Acupuncture, Herbology and other medical books going back 2 or 3 THOUSAND years. Some of them are STILL being used today or commented upon or being rediscovered.

    Note that the author has listed Homeopathy, a 200 year old system of medicine which operates by unknown mechanisms currently under research, with Acupuncture, a system of medicine which has extensive research and explicit theories of its mechanisms have been around for 3 decades and then lumps those with Reiki.
    Homeopathy, has only been around for a couple of hundred years, Acupuncture for thousands.

    Also note the clever conclusion which says that the Ancients weren’t such bad dudes after all, they just lacked the super duper tools and “modern knowledge” that we have today.

    And yet, despite all those “tools” and “evidence”, one of the leading causes of death is…. surprise!!! other standard medical treatments, side effects from pharmaceutical drugs and other “evidence” based treatments.

    Thanks for the advice!! I have some for you – beware of cult modern standard medicine, uneeded surgeries, overprescribed and unneeded pharmaceutical drugs, unneeded flu shots, unnecessary procedures and gypsy fortune telling.

  2. Charles Gaulke

    I find your objection to the categorization of homeopathy and acupuncture somewhat confusing. You talk about how homeopathy isn’t that old – as if this had any bearing on its validity – and that acupuncture is very very old – which of course has no bearing on its validity, that being the entire point of the article. Meanwhile we have no evidence that homeopathy works at all, by any mechanism, and the principles it is based on are totally incompatible with everything else we know about disease, medicine, and indeed chemistry. The only “explicit” (I can use scare quotes too!) theories I’m familiar with for acupuncture are in fact very similar to the supposed basis of reiki, being based on poorly defined “energy” and are once again incompatible with everything else we know.

    Arguing with a post about why older is not necessarily better by arguing that the particular thing you favour is really exceptionally old is nonsensical, and doesn’t confront the real reason PalMD has classified it and other things as “cult” medicine – they have yet, unlike the surgeries, pharmaceuticals, and vaccines you’re so scared of, to produce any of that pesky “evidence” that they actually work.

  3. #1:

    You must not have been reading this blog very long to think that someone might actually take you seriously. Homeopathy does absolutely nothing, and acupuncture might do something to endorphins, but that’s it. As for your point about being practiced for 3000 years, I have an expression I’d like to share: “Eat shit. Three trillion flies can’t be wrong.”

  4. minimalist

    And why is it that the nations with those wise, ancient traditions always see their average life expectancy shoot way up as soon as those nasty Western medicines are introduced?

  5. I think if I absolutely had to rely on inoculation instead of vaccination, I’d make use of natural selection to make it safer — i.e., find five people who only had a relatively mild case of the disease, use material from them to inoculate 100 people, choose the 5 of those whose symptoms were mildest to pass on to another 100, and so forth, over and over, selecting for less virulent organisms; no guarantee that the final result would protect against the wild form, though. Isn’t it nice that we don’t have to do this, and can develop vaccines in a lab?

  6. I have read that milkmaids were known for having beautiful, smooth skin and were thus quite popular. Incidently, Wikipedia claims that the history of inoculation and vaccination greatly predates Jenner, although Jenner popularized it in the West and was the first to publish.

  7. Paul Murray

    “have read that milkmaids were known for having beautiful, smooth skin ”

    Is that where the idea of bathing in milk, or using as a skin treatment, may have come from?

  8. I remember reading somewhere, “Today’s Nobel Prize is tomorrow’s high school science homework.”

    We may not have a collective consciousness in a science fiction-ey sense, but we certainly do have a collective memory. I often wonder if some catastrophe brought the world back to zero, how long would it take to get back to this point? Would it?

  9. Acupuncture, a system of medicine which has extensive research and explicit theories of its mechanisms have been around for 3 decades…

    It may have “explicit theories of its mechanisms”, but unfortunately these tend to rely on the flow of undetectable “Qi” along non-existent “meridians”.

  10. “Antiquitas saeculi juventus mundi” (The age of antiquity is the youth of the world.), said Francis Bacon about 400 years ago. And people have ignored him ever since.

  11. People on teh internet who denigrate science-based medicine make the Perky Skeptic sad.

    Observe my frowny-face!!! 🙁

  12. Acupuncture – Penn & Teller found a Doctor and researcher who **used to** go around teaching people how to do this. Problem is, the poor guy decided to see what would happen if he used the “wrong” points, after noting the huge number of practitioners who where “successful”, but didn’t follow the correct procedure. Woops! It didn’t matter what points he used, it worked anyway. Hmm. Maybe it was just the needles penetrating the skin, no matter where? He made some special “sterile” pads that could be applied “first”, before the needles went in. No pressure, no puncture, and nothing that different from what some people do anyway. Even without the needles “in” the skin people insisted they felt them penetrate, and it worked. So.. He got some of his assistants to run a different “test”, some of them where to act incompetent, say they didn’t know how it worked, and act like they where not sure it would, or even that it wouldn’t. Ooops!! The ones that did this the technique failed on. Nearly every patient (and all *new* patients) who thought the practitioner was incompetent, or whose “acupuncturist” seemed to think it didn’t work, failed to get “any” relief for “any” of the things treated. But, taking someone that actually “didn’t” have a clue what they where doing, teaching them the basics of how to use the “fake” needles, with the pads, and told to, “make up any explanation and points you want, and use them”, had a 100% success rate.

    His conclusion = Its all in people’s fracking heads, and it was in ancient times too.

    As for homeopathy… Give me a break, do you “honestly” think it makes any sense at all? Or, more to the point, if there is “any” validity to the premise, then it should would in “all” cases where the compound is dissolved in water, I really don’t think even you people are fracking stupid enough to think water “remembers” its contents so well that you can bake a cake without the “entire” contents of the box of cake mix (instead of just diluting it thousands of times and “baking” 10,000 cakes), or would trust a fire suppressant system that used chemicals in the water, if it was “diluted” to thousands of times below the original mixture, or any number of other cases which, if homeopathy would real, would be 100% as valid as using it in medicine.

    Put simply, there is no “magical” reason why dilution if this sort should work for “any” and “all” chemical processes/uses, if it works to remedies. For it to fail to produce the same result in one case, while working for a medicine, invalidates the very premise itself. Either the water “remembers” or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t for water soluble fight foam, or a cake mix, then it ***can’t*** for a fracking medication either. To believe otherwise requires some mechanism to explain why that is a) not provided at all, or b) defies the laws of math, reason and statistics even more absurdly than the BS already being promoted when trying to explain it now.

  13. should have been “water soluble fight fighting foam” in there. lol

  14. Grep Agni

    The 18th century is hardly antiquity.

    Also, though the smartest people in the pas are as amart as the smartes people today, I suspect that the average modern person is smarter than the average person in the past. Mostly because there is less childhood malnutrition and fewer development-affecting diseases.

  15. Other factor is that “most” people tend to be better educated in what is believable and isn’t. The sort that today would fall for H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, or think that “The Coming Race” was really about an underground civilization of super people, which had powers that one could almost imagine George Lucas stealing for Star Wars, also think that people on TV and Soap Operas are real, or that Harry Potter “actually” teaches witchcraft. But, back when those prior instances where new, and people didn’t “know” that Sci-Fi was really made up, the first one caused a national panic, and the second one may have been one of the driving forces behind the Nazi’s seeking holy relics and attempting to harness “Vril” powers.

    You don’t have to be stupid to be dangerous, just ignorant, willing to accept anything imaginable as real, without bothering/being able to check first, needy of some magical “order” for the world, and/or greedy. People that fit one or more of those will “still” fall for idiotic BS, they just have to try a whole hell of a lot harder to delude themselves into believing everyone else is wrong, and what ever idiocy they have latched onto is “real”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *