Before Germs: Bodies Out of Balance

Even though many civilizations had effective remedies to ward off infection, its cause was still unknown. For centuries, people developed theories, finding causes that ranged from the physical to supernatural. Depending on the culture or religion, most viewed infection as punishment for moral shortcomings or retribution for offending the gods.

One of the earliest theories that infection had a natural cause developed in ancient Greece. Known as the “Hippocratic Corpus,” this theory suggested that disease and infection was caused by an imbalance in bodily substances or “humors.” To restore a person to health, their black and yellow biles, phlegm, and blood had to be adjusted through diet, medicines, and bloodletting. Similar theories on balancing bodily fluids and substances appear in African, Thai, Chinese, and Tibetan medicine and in texts like the Ayurveda and Talmud.


Alchemic approach to four humors in relation to the four elements and zodiacal signs. Book illustration in “Quinta Essentia” by Leonhart Thurneisser zum Thurn, 1574 (WikiCommons)

For medical doctors, humorism theory was the prevailing medical concept in Europe into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Often the cure for imbalance was worse than the disease: mercury, arsenic, lead, and other toxic substances were common additives to medicines and ointments. This humorism theory provided the basis for the heroic depletion theory of the eighteenth century. This method attempted to shock the body back into balance through intensive purging, blistering, and bloodletting. Fortunately for many injured people, old remedies like honey, vinegar, and other treatments were still in use, even if hand-washing was not.











Top Image: Cauterization of the thigh, 16th Century, Hans von Gersdorf (Wikimedia COmmons).