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Clarkson University Offers Course In Ancient Medicine And Magic

Through careful study of primary written sources, art and artifacts, and the information gleaned from human remains, scholars are gradually piecing together the history of western medicine from its earliest appearance in Mesopotamia and Egypt to its more advanced form in Greece and Rome. Now, Clarkson University is offering students the opportunity to tackle this fascinating topic in the classroom. 

Sarah C. Melville, assistant professor of Ancient History at Clarkson, developed the course “Ancient Medicine & Magic” which she is teaching during the spring semester. “While most of us have had experience with illness or injury at some time in our lives,” says Melville, “we tend to take it for granted that we will enjoy reasonably good health, good nutrition, and the benefits of modern medical technology well into old age. The experiences and expectations of ancient man were different from ours in almost every way.” 

The ancients lived in a hostile world apparently controlled by unseen forces, and they sought to gain some measure of control over their lives and health through medicine. Melville and her students will take a look at how physicians in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome made significant discoveries and developed theories ─ many of which persisted into modern times ─ in spite of being limited by social mores, religious beliefs, lack of technology, and economic and political impediments. Students will learn about different types of medical practice including therapeutic medicine, religious healing, and magical cures. They will study the etiology and pathology of the diseases common in the ancient world, treatment of wounds, surgical practices, notions of hygiene and public health, understanding of nutrition, and the practice of gynecology. Students will participate in group work including interpreting primary source material, reproducing herbal remedies and doing research on nutrition. “I want students to come away from this class with an appreciation of the challenges ancient man faced and an understanding of how cultural beliefs, faulty theories, and misapprehensions influenced the course of medical developments,” stated Melville. “Students will also learn about historical methodology through the study of primary sources and artifacts.” 

Required reading for the course includes:  Disease by Joyce Filer (University of Texas Press, 1995); Hippocratic Writings by G.E.R. Lloyd (Penguin Classics, 1978); plus many handouts.

Clarkson University, located in Potsdam, New York, is an independent university with a reputation for developing innovative leaders in engineering, business and the sciences. Its academically rigorous, collaborative culture involves 2,700 undergraduates and 400 graduate students in hands-on team projects, multidisciplinary research, and real-world challenges. Many faculty members achieve international recognition for their scholarship and research, and teaching is a priority at every level.  For more information, visit
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