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Preventing illness

Jugum penises, United Kingdom, 1880-1920

Jugum penises, United Kingdom, 1880-1920

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Rather than treat an illness, patients and practitioners may aim to prevent disease in the first place. Depending on one's beliefs about the body and the causes of disease, such prevention (or ‘prophylaxis’) may take many forms. It may include diets and exercise, vaccination and drugs.

The Greeks prevent disease through balance, diet and exercise

In many systems of medical care, prevention is at least as important as the treatment of an acute disease. Ancient Greek practitioners believed that balancing the four fundamental fluids or ‘humours’ in the body was essential for health. So they advised their patients in methods to maintain good humoral balance. An early Hippocratic text called for appropriate diet and exercise as well as the use of music, and advised on the frequency of sexual intercourse.

Theories of balance

Similar humoral theories are used by many traditions of prevention. Traditional Chinese Medicine, for instance, tries to achieve a balance of vital energy or qi in the body, and an alignment between the body and its environment. The Indian system Ayurveda bases its advice for a health-preserving lifestyle on a balance of three basic humours or doshas. These can be balanced by a combination of herbs and diet with physical treatments from massages to surgery.

A variety of efforts to prevent the plague

Some forms of prevention were aimed more specifically at particular diseases. When the plague (the ‘Black Death’) ravaged medieval Europe, there were numerous explanations for its outbreak. Accordingly, preventative measures ranged from self-flagellation (among those who believed that God had sent the disease as punishment for the sins of mankind) to the killing of cats and dogs (which were supposed to be contagious). Doctors who thought that the plague was caused by a pestilential atmosphere wore long gowns and masks stuffed with aromatic herbs, and recommended strong-smelling herbs such as myrrh for purifying the air.

Prevention through good health

In Europe, beginning with the Enlightenment of the 1700s, philosophers and physicians urged the public to take systematic measures to remain healthy and productive, whether by exercise or diet. By 1800 intellectuals suggested that not just the individual, but the state as well, had a responsibility for the health of the citizen. Doctors and reformers such as the German Peter Johann Frank and the British Edwin Chadwick developed measures of disease prevention on a large scale. After the development of germ theory in the 1860s, and until the 1940s, hygiene was the basis for controlling infection. This often led to a fanatical fear of ‘germs’.

A religious reason to prevent illness


An important motivation for the development of preventative measures was religious: many religious movements argued that a healthy lifestyle was an important part of living a godly life. For example, in the 1800s the Adventists, a Christian sect in America, preached a ‘gospel of health’ which included a restricted diet, limitations on alcohol and sexual activity, and rigorous personal hygiene. American health reformers such as John Harvey Kellogg developed foods that aimed to be healthy and ‘pure’, part of living a moral lifestyle.

Modern-day prevention of diseases through state agencies

A more recent addition to the list of preventative measures is the practice of ‘safe sex’, especially the use of contraception (such as male condoms) to prevent the spread of STIs (sexually transmitted infections). State agencies across the world, charities and private initiatives such as the Red Ribbon Project are running campaigns to raise awareness of diseases such as AIDS, and inform about the measures that individuals can take to avoid getting ill. Thus, prevention benefits the individual as well as the community - it protects the individual from disease, and decreases the risk for others of becoming infected.


Related links

External links:


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

R De'ath, French Letters and English Overcoats: Sexual Fallacies and Fads From Ancient Greece to the Millennium (London: Robson, 2000)

N Gevitz, ‘Unorthodox medical theories’, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, 1 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 603-633

S Greenblatt, ‘Me, Myself, and I’, review of Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation by T W Laqueur, The New Yorker, 51/6 (April 8, 2004)

T W Laqueur, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (New York: Zone Books, 2003)

R Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (London: HarperCollins, 1997)



An acute contagious fever with high levels of mortality. Both the 'Black Death' that swept Europe in the 1340s and the Great Plague of London in 1665 are believed to have been bubonic plague.


The science of health and how to maintain it. A condition or practice which promotes good health. The definition varies widely and differs across cultures.


Tiny organisms that cause disease. 'Germ' is now a term that is applied loosely to many micro-organisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi.


The use of methods and techniques to prevent pregnancy from sex.


Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a disease caused by infections resulting from a weakened immune system due to the HIV virus. It leads to failure of the immune system and is usually fatal. It is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids.