Hippocrates is very famous for what many Western Physicians very well know almost by heart…the Hippocratic oath that basically states that a clinician must treat every patient to his or her fullest without any prejudice. However, Hippocrates a greek Philosopher/physician was also documented as being the first one to come up with the modern word for cancer. He thought that the tumors in people who had died of cancer had spread around and crawled from one place to another and thus named it “karkinos” which means crab. Although he is credited with naming the disease, he is certainly not the first ones to describe the disease. That distinction belongs to the Egyptians which as far back as 1500 BC well before the Greek Hippocrates at 460 BC.
There in Egypt at the time, tumors were discovered and removed in a somewhat similar fashion as today using simple surgery and the idea of using high heat to burn or ‘Cuaterize’ the flesh around the areas of the excised tissue was even used. One of the best described then were tumors of the breast. However, not surprisingly cancer was thought to be exclusively caused by the gods. The Greeks also believed in spiritual reasons behind sickness and disease and Hippocrates and the “Coprus” movement at that time tried to teach people that illness was caused by external factors like the foods we eat, etc. Hippocrates believed that humans were made up for four types of humors of fluids including, blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile. He and other believed that cancer was a result of excess build up of black bile. His teaching were so profound that they basically lay untested for thousands of years and only about 1400 years later did we get a more clear understanding of cancer.
More modern concepts of cancer came about in the early 1990’s. For example, in 1847 a German clinical researcher named Virchow named a strange disease that was seen in the blood as leukemia and in doing so lay down the thinking that diseases like cancer have cellular causes and are not spontaneous or due to liquid humors and compositions. Toward the end of his life Virchow discovered the reasons behind cancerous growths, mainly uncontrolled growth and actually coined the word ‘hyperplasia’ and ‘neoplasia’ terms that accurately reflect today’s understanding of cellular cancer. Even in the early 1900’s it was understood that these blood cancers and even solid cancers could be what is known as indolent (quite) or chronic (full bloom) and that one could look under a microscope to get a better picture of the disease and that the basis was cellular. This is again the start of modern-day cancer thought.
Cancer is complex and like many other things in history the entire filed can not be boiled down to a few people like I just did. But, to make things easy and straightforward, only the biggest issues were brought up. Of course, there are hundreds of scientist and clinicians who have all together helped us define what we know about cancer.
For more information on cancer please do come visit me at Cancer Made Simple!
- The Definition of Cancer (brighthub.com)
- Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (arts.nationalpost.com)
- Cancer: Should we stop trying to cure it? | Siddhartha Mukherjee (guardian.co.uk)