Susruta: The Ancient World’s Greatest Doctor
Often, it is tempting to assume that our ancient ancestors were nowhere near as smart as ourselves. It is comforting to think of our civilization as being the peak of all history, but unfortunately for our vanity, this is not the case. The ancient world was a far different place than the world that is usually envisioned.
For an example of that, we will take a look at the ancient Indian physician Sushruta. Sushruta lived sometime between 1000 and 800 BC. Although his work is nearly three thousand years old, his methods are still being used today. Modern medical scientists have examined his writings thoroughly and found that his principles are still applicable today.
Sushruta is probably most famous as the world’s first plastic surgeon. He developed techniques of reconstructive surgery which are amazing for their age. Sushruta’s Indian rhinoplasty technique is still employed today, though it has been slightly modified. His original method involves cutting a small piece of skin from the cheek and turning it over to cover the nose. The new piece of skin is then sewn onto the existing skin of the nose (or nasal stump, as the case may be). Two hollow tubes, traditionally made using two stalks of the castor-oil plant, are inserted into the nasal cavities and used to give support and shape to the nose. The whole is then covered in cotton and constantly treated with sesame oil until it has healed.
Sushruta’s Indian rhinoplasty is well-attested in the historical record. There is, however, one source that is older. The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BC) is an Ancient Egyptian medical papyrus that describes rhinoplasty as the plastic surgical operation for reconstructing a nose destroyed by rhinectomy, such a mutilation was inflicted as punishment for certain crimes. In any event, the Indian rhinoplasty technique continued in 19th-century Western European medicine.
Sushruta had an intimate understanding of the various pressure points vital points of the human body. The pressure points that are so frequently used in the various Asian martial arts are the exact same pressure points identified by Sushruta over 2000 years ago. Perhaps the most striking thing about Sushruta’s master text, the Sushruta Samhita, should be required reading for any aspiring physician. It seems to be more or less devoid of the superstitions that can often be found in ancient medical texts. Clearly, Sushruta was not interested in that sort of thing. His text shows us that he was a very professional man who focused on known facts and proven realities.
It is absolutely amazing to see what is written in this book when you consider its age. It includes information about all sorts of diseases and conditions, from violent trauma to various diseases and even information about epilepsy, the nervous system, ulcers, hemorrhoids, and almost any other affliction you could imagine. Surely, this man was just as intelligent as any doctor living today.
Sushruta is probably the father of surgery, as his document represents the earliest example of a true surgical manual. He spent a good part of his life teaching many students the skills that have today come to be known as Ayurveda. It only goes to show that sometimes the old ways really are the best ways.