The earliest recorded ideas about health in the Western tradition come from Mesopotamia where health was linked to the will of the various gods and spirits. A disease of a particular organ was linked to the emotional state of the god associated with that organ. A specific offering was made by the ashipu or priest/doctor to that god in order to appease him or her and thereby achieve a cure. The ashipu was the intermediary who could communicate with the god on behalf of the patient and no doubt took his share of the offering.
If this seems bizarre, we have only to remember the current widespread belief in the efficacy of prayer for the cure of disease, and that almost every hospital has a prayer room. When illness strikes without warning, some of us are not entirely free of such ancient beliefs, we still fear that we have somehow angered the gods or that we might find cure through divine intervention. My mother went to the Chassidic rabbi in our community for help with my dying father’s cancer. I’m sure that she was not the only one, as the rabbi had developed a reputation for achieving occasional miraculous cures.
The modern remnants of these ancient beliefs have been considered by medical science. There have been experimental attempts to show the efficacy of prayer. A particular set of experiments have purportedly demonstrated the efficacy of prayer on patients who don’t know that they are being prayed for, by subjects who don’t know the patients for whom they are praying (reference). The design of these experiments has been the subject of some debate, of course, and the experiments have surfaced as many questions about the efficacy of double blind randomized control trials as about the usefulness of prayer.
The particular gods related to each organ brings to mind the current extent of specialization. Specialist doctors are increasingly associated with particular body parts – from retinas to knees – and are revered much like the ancient gods of particular organs. Patients are often warned not to anger the gods of the organs. A large section of The Savvy Patient, an advice book for patients, provides very explicit instructions about how to relate to specialist doctors so as not to make them angry. Many patients tell us stories about experiences they have with doctors who become quite angry and dismissive if they ask too many questions, or want to describe their situation in more detail, or even ask to bring their relative into the examining room with them. The fear of annoying a doctor is quite real among some patients, which I think speaks both to the authority of the doctor and often the passivity of the patient. Historically these roles appear to go right back to ancient times.