Medicine in the Ancient World

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
June 28, 2021 - July 21, 20216/28 - 7/213 WeeksOnlineOpenOnlineSilvia Nigrelli

Course Description

Did you know that the ancient Egyptians considered ox liver to be a really excellent treatment for night-blindness or that the Romans would treat constipation with urine from a person who ate cabbage? Have you ever heard of the Greeks performing human dissections or the ability of doctors from India to reconstruct a person’s nose after it had been cut off as a punishment?! If you would like to know more about who the ancient doctors were, how much they knew about the complex inner workings of the human body, and how they treated various illnesses and performed surgeries, then welcome to Medicine in the Ancient World!  

In the ancient world religion and magic played an important role in the medicine of early societies. People often turned to the gods in order to ensure their good health or asked supernatural beings for a cure for their illnesses. Vegetable remedies were often accompanied by a recitation of magical spells and amulets and charms were commonly produced to protect one’s body. However, over time there developed a group of professionals who attempted to heal the body in the instances where the gods seemingly failed to help. In this course we will explore chronologically the practice of medicine in the ancient world in connection with the religious, magical, and philosophical beliefs and principles of early cultures.

Together we will visit ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, as well as India, and look at such key figures as Imhotep, Hippocrates, Galen, and Sushruta. We will examine ancient mummies to identify illnesses from which ancient people suffered and read through medical papyri and treatises to learn how diseases were understood and treated. We will look at how doctors were trained, which instruments they used, and what was the extent of their knowledge about human anatomy. Lastly, we will delve into such specialized branches of medicine as gynecology, dentistry, ophthalmology, ayurvedic medicine, and even plastic surgery!

As a completely online course, you will be able to complete all assignments in your own time by watching short lectures, doing daily readings, and engaging in other online activities. You will also be able to participate in group discussions with your classmates and debate whether or not the Mesopotamian practice of prescribing a bat to treat the loss of male potency might have been beneficial. In once class we will even have the opportunity to hear the opinions of a special guest doctor, in regard to the presumed efficacy of some ancient medical practices and treatments!

By the end of the course, students will grasp the basic medicinal ideas and practices held in the ancient world and understand them in their wider historical context, while gaining knowledge of early societies. They will become familiar with the practical as well as social aspects of ancient medicine and sharpen their analytical skills through the assessment of primary and secondary sources. Moreover, by considering the interconnectedness of medical ideas among ancient cultures, they will develop critical and comparative thinking skills, which are among the most important assets in studying humanities and in navigating through the world of college education.

Prerequisites: No prerequisites.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEHI0977

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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