Early human civilizations, ruins, and all things ancient fascinate me. I sat in my favorite high school course, “Ancient Civilizations,” mesmerized by my teacher’s descriptions of embalming methods in ancient Egypt, the building of the pyramids, and Roman gluttony. I fancied myself an archeologist while in college. When on an excavation near Nazareth, I unearthed a near perfect, pure white, bone needle. Measuring six inches long, sleek and smooth, this needle was an omen (talisman) of my future career.
Years later, I find myself a practitioner of an ancient medicine involving needles—acupuncture. Unlike many traditional medicines, acupuncture has a written history dating back more than two thousand years. Furthermore, it’s grounded in thousands of years of clinical practice. I have my predecessors to thank when my patients get better. Yet, when my patients ask me how and why, it’s not something I can explain easily. I tell them, it’s something they can experience, like magic.
I recently visited “ A Day in Pompeii” exhibit at the Denver Museum of Natural History. There I came across a display entitled, ”Medicine in Pompeii.” The wall label read:
Pompeii revealed much about the medicine practiced by the Romans.
Medicine was perceived to be part magic and part science. People believed in potions and talismans as well as more practical medical treatments. Doctors were considered to be craftsman, like potters and sculptors.
Complete sets of medical instruments, including scalpels and probes similar to those used by surgeons today, were discovered. These show how knowledgeable some medical practitioners were and how advanced Roman medicine was.
Pompeii’s doctors set bones, drilled holes in skulls, sutured wounds, performed amputations, and used prostheses to replace lost limbs. They performed minor plastic surgery such as the removal of moles. understood that arteries carried blood, and cleaned their instruments in boiling water after use.
In Pompeii, medicine embraced “magic”, and doctors were craftsmen. Unfortunately, in our culture, we expect doctors to be more like technicians and robots, eliminating subjective human input. But while there are facts, objectives, and scientific evidence, there are also so many unknowns and so much left to our own imagination. I like to think magic is our subjective experience of the unknown. And when I practice, I am tapping into that magic and into a force much greater than me. I am tapping into the unknown.