Medicine and research: a historical perspective

As we enter a new century and the brave new world of gene therapy, cloning and healing with stem cells, the religious right and others are taking up the cause of what they call barbarism, radical research and inhumane treatment of those who are unable to speak for themselves. Historically speaking, it seems we’ve been here before, several times!

At the end of the dark ages a radical young artist and his helpers eager to correctly paint and draw the human body would skulk through the night stealing cadavers for dissection and study. The powers at be, namely the church, absolutely forbade anyone to work with a corpse except to prepare it for burial.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s studies and drawings of those corpses, the first true studies of the subject we now know as anatomy and physiology, are still with us today. He likened the heart to a pump, the lungs to a bellows, and the brain to a large switching center. His work, undertaken at great personal risk, was invaluable in the understanding of the human body and its diseases.

The early Christian church discouraged this kind of study and the formal practice of medicine with the avowed intention that man was imitating Christ by healing the sick. They believed that sickness was the work of the devil or demons and only prayer was to be used for healing. Any interference, such as herbal medicine, was viewed as blasphemy and would only suppress the soul’s journey to its due evolution. They claimed the end result would find man turning away from God and the church and looking only to himself and his abilities for healing and salvation.

During this time, there was an attempt to destroy all forms of healing and suppress the ancient knowledge of herbs and natural medicine. But truth cannot forever be suppressed and manuscripts were secretly passed from one generation of healers to the next.

Herbs were hidden amongst the vegetables in gardens of monasteries. Some became famous for their beautiful gardens, which were always located close to their charitable hospitals for the poor and needy who seemed to miraculously stay well while others dropped dead around them.

Around the same time, devastating plagues wracked Europe. Leprosy, The Black Death, and Cholera killed about one quarter of Europe’s population. These infectious diseases were finally looked upon for what they were – ignorance and a serious lack of knowledge about cleanliness and hygiene. Since cleanliness was considered next to Godliness, the existing doctrine of allowing illness to follow its natural course without interference lost favor.

Look forward to the wars of the last century and, in particular, the advances in surgical techniques of the MASH units. Imagine being a surgeon faced day after day with healthy young soldiers whose bodies were blown to smithereens and would die unless you improvised, added to, or rewrote the existing medical books. I can’t!

Eight years of my career in traditional nursing was spent working close at hand with a kind and compassionate surgeon. He knew when he had a hold of the tiger’s tail and usually knew when and how or if he should let go. I believe that most doctors do understand this and know when to let go.

I heard a medical ethicist talking about the issues of stem cell research and cloning the other day on National Public Radio who seemed, at least for me, to put stem cell research into perspective. He likened an embryo to a set of blueprints. The house isn’t built, the foundation hasn’t even been started, it’s just blueprints. It’s up to us what we do with them.

The questions facing us will be difficult ones. The answers will not come easy but we cannot stop the research any more than the church of centuries ago could stop what they must have thought was radical and morally wrong. Let us at least keep an open mind and see where this brave new world takes us.

Till next time, Rebecca