The priests of Esculapius formed, as we have before said, a separate caste, transmitting from one to another their medical knowledge as a family heritage. In the remotest times, no layman, according to the report of Galen, was admitted to participate in the sacred science, but at a later period, this severe secrecy was relaxed. They consented to reveal their secrets
to strangers, provided they would fulfill the tests of initiation. There was, then, according to every probability, some sort of Medical instruction given in each temple. Indeed, history has preserved the memory of three schools that had a great reputation, viz : that of Rhodes, the most ancient of all, which had already ceased to exist, at the time of Hippocrates, and of whose doctrines we have no accounts whatever ; that of Cnidus, which was the first to publish a small repertory, with the title of the Cnidian Sentences ; finally, that of Cos, the most celebrated of all, and which has given birth to a great number of illustrious physicians, whose writings constitute the most valuable memorials of antique Medicine. Among the means of instruction offered by the priests of Esculapius, there is one that deserves to arrest us for a moment, because it is specially relative to the historic- period with which we are now occupied ; I mean, the votive tablets which it was customary to faster to the walls and columns of the temples after the example of the Egyptians. These tablets showed, generally, the name of the patient, the kind of disease with which he was attacked, and the manner of his cure.
One of these tablets, found at Rome, on the island in the Tiber, the site of the ancient Esculapian temple, bears the following inscription, in Greek characters :
" Lately a certain Caïus, who was blind, came to consult the oracle. The god required that he approach the sacred altar to perform adorations ; at once he passed from the right to the left, and having rested his fingers on the altar, he raised his hands and applied them to his eyes. He recovered his sight immediately, in the presence of the people, who rejoiced to see such marvels accomplished under the reign of our august Antonius."
" Lucius was attacked with a pleurisy, and every one despaired of his life. The god ordered that the ashes of the altar be taken, mingled with wine and applied to his side. He was saved, and gave thanks to god before the people, who congratulated him."
" Julian vomited blood, and appeared lost beyond recovery. The oracle ordered him to take the pine seeds of the altar and eat them for three days, mingled with honey. He did so, and was cured. Having solemnly thanked god, he went away."
" The god gave this direction to a blind soldier named Valerius Aper : Take the blood of a white cock, mingle it with honey, and make a collyrium, which you are to apply to the eyes for three days. The soldier having fulfilled the direction of the oracle, was restored to sight, and returned to make a public thanksgiving to God."
Narratives of this kind, and written in such style, were well calculated to fortify the piety of the faithful ; but certainly, they do not serve any great end for the advancement of science. The writers who have boasted of this method of instruction, have not reflected, apparently, upon its glaring defects. Of what advantage, for example, is the record of the third case - "Julian vomited blood, and appeared to be beyond recovery ?" What physician would dare rest a prognosis or direct a treatment on so vague an indication ? Can we treat indifferently, in the same manner, a stout man, or an infant, or an old man - a plethoric or an anaemic patient - a hemoptysis, or a hematemesis, or a scorbutic hemorrhage of the buccal mucous membrane ? (I have seen a woman attacked with a hemorrhage of this nature who threw off mouthfuls of blood : she had already filled several basins. The liquid was seen running from the surface of all the gums. This fearful affection brought the patient within two fingers' length of the grave, and only yielded at last to reiterated cauterization with the nitrate of silver).
It requires no reflection to say that a disease cannot be announced by one or two symptoms; but rather it is necessary to recall, 1st, all the anterior circumstances which could have contributed, directly or in- directly, to promote it; 2d, to ascertain, the age, sex, temperament, and usual habits of the patient ; 3d, finally, to describe with the greatest care the actual general state of the patient, and make every possible effort to know the organ principally affected, as well as the nature of the lesion of which it is suffering.
It is presumable that the Asclepiadaa wrote down in secret the history of each disease, and the means employed to combat it ; but we are ignorant through how many degrees science passed before it attained the stage of development exhibited in the' Hippocratic works. But we may, at all events, judge from the exquisite taste and precision which characterize some of these books, that they had for a long time been in the habit of closely observing and clearly describing diseases.
From History of Medicine by P.V. Renouard M.D.