During the space of about seven hundred years, which this period embraces, Medicine underwent, in Greece, a first transformation ; from having been domestic and popular, it became sacerdotal, and wrapt itself in a mysterious habit. Until that time, the world
had princes, captains, shepherds even, acquiring reputation for their skill in the Art: but after the Trojan war, we only hear of consultations given in the name of the divinity, in the temples, or in some celebrated caves, such as those of Trophonius and Charonium. Not but what there were, in those times even, men also, not of the clergy, who assumed to treat diseases, and dispense remedies ; but it appears that scientific Medicine, if we may be allowed so to call the limited notions that were in their possession, was entirely possessed by the priesthood, and was perpetuated only in their order by an uninterrupted tradition, where it slowly developed itself in the quiet of seclusion.
"The practice of Medicine in the temples of Esculapius," says M. Aug. Gauthier, " may be divided into two epochs. In the first, which extends down to Hippocrates, the Asclepiadse, though employing, for the most part, superstitious means, have rendered service to science by the taste developed among some of them for observation. It must be agreed, that in those barbarous times, Medicine could make more progress in the hands of a corporation like the Asclepiadse, than if it had been merely a domestic or popular Art. It is not probable that, at a period go remote, when the arts and sciences were still in their infancy, a man of genius could be suddenly raised up, who would elevate Medicine to the rank of a science. In the second epoch, which extends from Hippocrates to Christianity, Medicine in the temples gradually declined, and was more frequently a gross jugglery.( Recherches Historiques sur l'Exercice de la Medicine dans les Temples," etc., par Auguste Gauthier, 1844, chap, II)
The same writer adds, a little further on : " It is difficult to appreciate, to-day, what amount of learning was in the possession of the priests of the temples, and what progress Medicine made in their hands. As there have always been men who have shown a tendency to admire what is ancient, we must not be surprised to find in antiquity, as well as in modern times, writers who have lauded immeasurably the medical knowledge of the Asclepiadse. On the other hand, there are physicians who deny that they ever possessed any. Thus, M. Malgaigne would consign the Asclepiadse to that oblivion from which they never ought to have emerged. He censures M. Littre for mentioning them, and proposes to erase their deeds from the history of Medicine and Surgery.(Lettres sur l'Histoire de la Chirurgie," inserted in the Gazette des Hopiteauz, 1842. M. Malgaigne founds his opinion, principally, on the four votive inscriptions heretofore given ; but these inscriptions are of the epoch of the Antonins, and can not give us a correct idea of those that were in the temples of the times of the ancient Asclepiadse, nor especially of the clinical notes made by the priests themselves) We think it better to avoid extravagance on both sides. It is probable that the reading of the inscriptions in the temples, and the habit of seeing a great number of sick, gave, in the end, a certain amount of medical instruction to the priests. (Gauthier, loc. cit. chap. IV)
This is, it seems to me, what may be most reasonably said of that part of medical history so profoundly enveloped in obscurity. Where there is default of positive documents, free course is unsually given to the imagination, and it is seen that on this point, that of the erudite has not been sterile. But in the midst of diverse opinions, which have been emitted as to the actual knowledge of the Asclepiadae, some of which I have mentioned, that of M. Gauthier, I repeat, appears to me the most reasonable, the best founded, as well as most universally accredited.
Finally, we touch an epoch in which the Healing Art undergoes a metamorphosis far more interesting for history and for philosophy, and far more advantageous to humanity. Until this time, in fact, the medical edifice had been formed of materials taken at hazard, and gathered, generally, without taste or method ; no harmonious thought, or premeditated design, directed the researches of the men who made the first discoveries ; but afterward, reason and genius unite to extend and improve what accident and instinct had suggested. The scientific monument of this difficult Art begins to rise, grand and majestic, gradually harmonizing all its parts. We shall no longer follow its progress through ages, by the light of vague conjecture ; but, with the help of authentic memorials, and debris more or less well founded. We shall no longer be compelled to divine the intimate thought of the laborers in the different phases of its progress, but we shall read it, stamped in intelligible characters upon the remaining fragments of their labors.
From History of medicine by P.V. Renouard M.D.