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Treatments and cures

Both-type iron lung, London, England, 1950-1955

Both-type iron lung, London, England, 1950-1955

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The iron lung

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How do you cure a disease? How do you avoid getting ill in the first place? Historically, medical practitioners and lay people have resorted to a wide variety of measures to combat illness, from drugs and surgery to magic and exercise. Your choice of treatment may depend on what substances and techniques are available, and on the practitioner's experience. Many herbal remedies, for instance, were used because the plants were known to have curative powers, although practitioners could not always explain why the plant had a positive effect on the patient.

People’s thoughts on the causes of disease


Importantly, the development of treatments and cures through time was also shaped by how people thought disease was caused, and how they thought about the body. Accordingly, treatments could target the body (using drugs or physical methods such as surgery), the mind (as in hypnosis or psychotherapy) or external influences such as evil spirits (in magical healing practices).

Magic and curing disease

In cultures where people thought that disease was caused by demons or evil spirits, magic was considered the best remedy. Many societies had shamans who would employ magic to cure disease. In addition people tried to protect themselves using magical objects such as amulets. On the other hand, when you know that a certain disease is caused by germs, you might consider vaccination as a means of protection.

Balance in the body: different cultural ideas

Your treatment may also depend on how you think about the body. Many theories of health and disease are based on the notion of achieving balance in the body. Diverse cultures in ancient Greece, and in medieval Islam, India and China all developed concepts of humours - basic fluids which make up the body. In this framework, maintaining balance between the humours aims to prevent disease. The measures which could be used to restore balance were numerous; humoralist physicians in Ancient Greece and Rome, such as Galen, recommended a range of treatments from physical methods such as exercise to a change in diet.

Change and continuity of treatments


Some traditional forms of treatment survived for a long time. Bloodletting was one of the most widely practised measures from Ancient Greece until the 1800s. However, while the method remained the same, the explanations for why it worked changed. A Greek physician in 200 BCE might justify bloodletting on the basis of humoral theory as getting rid of excess blood, for instance. His early modern colleague, thinking about the body as a hydraulic system of pumps, would argue that he used the same measure to lower the pressure in the 'machine'.

Science and treatment

With the practice of alchemy in the Renaissance, scientists such as Paracelsus began to think about the body as a chemical system. They started using new chemicals, minerals and metals such as mercury to supplement traditional herbal drugs. In the 1700s the new science of electricity prompted people to imagine the body as an electrical machine, and to develop electrotherapy, administering electric shocks to combat afflictions such as epilepsy and paralysed limbs. In the 20th century scientists investigated genes as causes of disease, and they now develop methods of gene therapy.

New technology, new techniques

The advancement of medical treatments was caused not just by changing ideas, but also by changing practices and technological possibilities. Developments in science and technology opened up new forms of treatment. In the 1800s and early 1900s, new techniques of analytical and synthetic chemistry enabled scientists to isolate medically valuable substances, such as morphine and insulin, and to produce them on a large scale.

Ehrlich’s new approach - chemotherapy

Motivated by the successes and limits of vaccination and the germ theory, in the early 1900s scientist Paul Ehrlich began to develop a new approach which he called chemotherapy. Ehrlich sought to produce chemicals which were poisonous to the germ, but relatively harmless for the patient - a new direction of medical science which eventually led to the development of important new treatments such as antibiotics.

The range of treatments available today

Through the ages, practitioners and lay people have developed new treatments and drugs, or imported them from other cultures. Thus, today the medical marketplace offers a variety of choices to a patient, from pharmaceuticals to acupuncture. People wishing to treat their depression, for instance, can choose between traditional herbal remedies such as St John's wort, newly developed pharmaceutical drugs, non-physical treatments such as psychotherapy, or a combination of these. For severe diseases, patients usually receive a combination of treatments. After the Second World War (1939-45), cancer treatment came to include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. Modern biomedical research investigates the possibilities of gene therapies, for instance for the treatment of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

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External links:


L Alexander, The Iron Cradle. My Fight Against Polio (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1955)

F Bray, ‘Chinese medicine’, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, 1 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 728-754

L I Conrad, ‘Arab-Islamic medicine’, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, 1 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 676-727

V Nutton, ‘Humoralism’, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, 1 (London: Routledge, 1993),pp 281-291

G B Risse, ‘Medical care’, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, 1 (London: Routledge, 1993) pp. 45-77

D J. Wilson, Living With Polio. The Epidemic and its Survivors (Chicago: Chicago University Press 2005)

R Woods, Tales From Inside the Iron Lung (and how I got out of it) (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1994)


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