site logo

Great Physicians In Early Christian Times

What we know of the life of the Founder of Christianity and how much He

did for the ailing poor would make us expect that the religion that He

established would foster the care and the cure of suffering humanity. As

we have outlined in the Introduction, the first of the works of

Christian service that was organized was the care of the sick. At first

a portion of the bishop's house was given over to the shelter of the

ling, and a special order of assistants to the clergy, the

deaconesses, took care of them. As Christians became more numerous,

special hospitals were founded, and these became public institutions

just as soon as freedom from persecution allowed the Christians the

liberty to give overt expression to their feelings for the poor. While

hospitals of limited capacity for such special purposes as the

sheltering of slaves or of soldiers and health establishments of various

kinds for the wealthy had been erected before Christianity, this was the

first time that anyone who was ill, no matter what the state of his

pecuniary resources, could be sure to find shelter and care. The

expression of the Emperor Julian the Apostate, that admission to these

hospitals was not limited to Christians, is the best possible evidence

of the liberal charity that inspired them.

The ordinary passing student of the history of medicine or of hospital

foundation and organization, can have no idea of the magnitude of some

of these institutions, and their importance in the life of the time,

unless it is especially pointed out. St. Basil, about the middle of the

fourth century, erected what was spoken of as a city for the sick,

before the gates of Caesarea. Gregory of Nazianzen, his friend, says

that well built and furnished houses stood on both sides of streets

symmetrically laid out about the church, and contained rooms for the

sick, and the infirm of every variety were intrusted to the care of

doctors and nurses. There were separate buildings for strangers, for

the poor, and for the ailing, and comfortable dwellings for the

physicians and nurses. An important portion of the institution was set

apart for the care of lepers, which constituted a prominent feature in

Basil's work in which he himself took a special interest. Earlier in the

same century Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, had built

similar institutions around Jerusalem, and during this same century

nearly everywhere we have evidence of organization of hospitals and of

care for the ailing poor.

Not only were hospitals erected, but arrangements were made for the care

of the ailing poor in their own homes and for the visitation of them,

and for the bringing to places adapted for their care and treatment of

such as were found on the street, or neglected in their homes. The

Church evidently considered itself bound to care for men's bodies as

well as their souls, and many of the expressions in common use among

Christians referred to this fact. Religion itself was spoken of as a

medicine of the soul and the body. Christianity was defined as the

religion of healing. The word salvation had a reference to both body and

soul. Baptism was spoken of as the bath of the soul, the holy Eucharist

as the elixir of immortal life, and penance as the medicine of the soul.

It is not surprising to find, then, that Harnack has found among the

texts that illustrate the history of early Christian literature this

one: In every community there shall be at least one widow appointed to

assist women who are stricken with illness, and this widow shall be

trained in her duties, neat and careful in her ways, shall not be

self-seeking, must not indulge too freely in wine in order that she may

be able to take up her duties at night as well as by day, and shall

consider it her duty to keep the Church officials informed of all that

seems necessary.

The saving of deformed and ailing infants or children whose parents did

not care to have the trouble of rearing them, required the establishment

by the Christians of another set of institutions, Foundling Asylums and

Hospitals for Children. Until the coming of Christianity parents were

supposed to have the right of life and death over their children, and no

one questioned it. In every country in the world until the coming of

Christianity this had always been the case. Besides, there were

institutions for the care of the old. These are the classes of mankind

who are especially liable to suffer from disease, and the opportunity

to study human ailments in such institutions could scarcely help but

provide facilities for clinical observation such as had not existed

before. Unfortunately the work of Christianity was hampered, first by

the Roman persecutions, and then later by the invasion of the

barbarians, who had to be educated and lifted up to a higher plane of

civilization before they could be brought to appreciate the value of

medical science, much less contribute to its development.

Harnack, whose writings in the higher criticism of Scripture have

attracted so much attention in recent years, began his career in the

study of Christian antiquities with a monograph on Medical Features of

Early Christianity.[1] He mentions altogether some sixteen physicians

who reached distinction in the earliest days of Christianity. Some of

these were priests, some of them bishops, as Theodotos of Laodicea;

Eusebius, Bishop of Rome; Basilios, Bishop of Ancyra, and at least one,

Hierakas, was the founder of a religious order. The first Christian

physicians came mainly from Syria, as might be expected, for here the

old Greek medical traditions were active. Among them must be enumerated

Cosmas and Damian, physicians who were martyred in the persecution of

Diocletian, and who have been chosen as the patrons of the medical

profession. Justinian erected a famous church to them. It became the

scene of pilgrimages. Organizations of various kinds since, as the

College of St. Come, and medical societies, have been named after them.

Some idea of the interest of ecclesiastics in medical affairs may be

gathered from a letter of Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus, directed to the

prefect of the city, when he was about to leave the place. He wrote (see

Puschmann, Vol. I., p. 494): When I took up the Bishopric of Cyrus I

made every effort to bring in from all sides the arts that would be

useful to the people. I succeeded in persuading skilled physicians to

take up their residence here. Among these is a very pious priest, Peter,

who practises medicine with great skill, and is well known for his care

for the people. Now that I am about to leave the city, some of those who

came at my invitation are preparing also to go. Peter seems resolved to

do this. I appeal to your highness, therefore, in order to commend him

to your special care. He handles patients with great skill and brings

about many cures.

Distinguished Christian writers and scholars, and the Fathers of the

Church in the early centuries, evidently paid much attention to

medicine. Tertullian speaks of medical science as the sister of

philosophy, and has many references to the medical doctrines discussed

in his time. Lactantius, in his work, De Opificio Dei, has much to say

with regard to the human body as representing the necessity for design

in creation. His teleological arguments have much more force now than

they would have had for people generally twenty years ago. We have come

back to recognize the place of teleology. Clement of Alexandria was an

early Christian temperance advocate, who argued that the use of wine

was only justified when it did good as a medicine. The problems of

embryology and of diseases of childhood interested him as they did many

other of the early Christian writers.