Myths of Babylonia and Assyria
Page: 125Doctors must have found their profession an extremely risky one. No allowance was made for what is nowadays known as a "professional error". A doctor's hands were cut off if he opened a wound with a metal knife and his patient afterwards died, or if a man lost his eye as the result of an operation. A slave who died under a doctor's hands had to be replaced by a slave, and if a slave lost his eye, the doctor had to pay half the man's market value to the owner. Professional fees were fixed according to a patient's rank. Gentlemen had to pay five shekels of silver to a doctor who set a bone or restored diseased flesh, commoners three shekels, and masters for their slaves two shekels. There was also a scale of fees for treating domesticated animals, and it was not over-generous. An unfortunate surgeon who undertook to treat an ox or ass suffering from a severe wound had to pay a quarter of its price to its owner if it happened to die. A shrewd farmer who was threatened with the loss of an animal must have been extremely anxious to engage the services of a surgeon.
It is not surprising, after reviewing this part of the Hammurabi Code, to find Herodotus stating bluntly that the Babylonians had no physicians. "When a man is ill", he wrote, "they lay him in the public square, and the passers-by come up to him, and if they have ever had his disease themselves, or have known anyone who has suffered from it, they give him advice, recommending him to do whatever they found good in their own case, or in the case known to them; and no one is allowed to pass the sick man in silence without asking him what his ailment is." One might imagine that Hammurabi had legislated the medical profession out of existence, were it not that letters have been found in the Assyrian library of Ashur-banipal which indicate that skilled physicians were held in high repute. It is improbable, however, that they were numerous. The risks they ran in Babylonia may account for their ultimate disappearance in that country.
No doubt patients received some benefit from exposure in the streets in the sunlight and fresh air, and perhaps, too, from some of the old wives' remedies which were gratuitously prescribed by passers-by. In Egypt, where certain of the folk cures were recorded on papyri, quite effective treatment was occasionally given, although the "medicines" were exceedingly repugnant as a rule; ammonia, for instance, was taken with the organic substances found in farmyards. Elsewhere some wonderful instances of excellent folk cures have come to light, especially among isolated peoples, who have received them interwoven in their immemorial traditions. A medical man who has investigated this interesting subject in the Scottish Highlands has shown that "the simple observation of the people was the starting-point of our fuller knowledge, however complete we may esteem it to be". For dropsy and heart troubles, foxglove, broom tops, and juniper berries, which have reputations "as old as the hills", are "the most reliable medicines in our scientific armoury at the present time". These discoveries of the ancient folks have been "merely elaborated in later days". Ancient cures for indigestion are still in use. "Tar water, which was a remedy for chest troubles, especially for those of a consumptive nature, has endless imitations in our day"; it was also "the favourite remedy for skin diseases". No doubt the present inhabitants of Babylonia, who utilize bitumen as a germicide, are perpetuating an ancient folk custom.