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 ailing, 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 welh 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 buihdings 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 hepers, 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 simihar 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 he 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.’ 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 Aneyra, 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. lie wrote (see Puschmann, Vol. L, 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.