From healers to doctors—a rocky road !


(This post is really long but I could not find a way to break it in two without losing the thread. Hope it holds your attention all the way through!)

Medicine as a healing art is surely as old as the human civilization. The earliest such persons were likely to have been those who used herbs/ plants which were also a part of food. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans were using medicinal plants approximately 60,000 years ago. In India, Ayurveda medicine has used many herbs such as turmeric possibly as early as 4,000 BC.

aviv=cenna quote

The Sushruta Samhita (attributed to a group of healers collectively termed Sushrut) in the 6th century BC describes 700 medicinal plants and 57 preparations based on animal sources. It also discusses surgery and was one of the first in human history to suggest that a student of surgery should learn about the human body and its organs by dissecting a dead body.

A great scholar L0008560 Arteries and Viscera (according to Avicenna),of the Arabian School was Avicenna, or Ibn Sina, born in circa 980 in modern day Uzbekistan who is considered the Father of Modern Medicine. Avicenna authored a five-volume medical encyclopedia: The Canon of Medicine.

It was used as the standard medical textbook in the Islamic world and Europe up to the 18th century and still plays an important role in Unani medicine. In it he writes about the study of physiology, the discovery of contagious diseases and the introduction of quarantine, experimental medicine and even clinical trials.


Is it an colonial/ western imposition that we have accepted without challenging, which creates this current hierarchy of the allopathic system of medicine above all else? Why can we not as Indians absorb all the various schools of medicine from our rich heritage? Worth a thought? Here is what a study from KEM Hospital Mumbai says about attitudes of allopathic doctors towards ayurvedic practices.pathy study

In Europe, the Benedictine monasteries were the primary source of medical knowledge. The monasteries had herb gardens which provided the raw materials for the simple treatment of common disorders. It was in one of these herb gardens that Gregor Mendel began his experiments in 1856 with the garden pea, leading to the understanding of genetics and inheritance.

The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of people worldwide still rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care.

In the past centuries the traditional healers were mostly women ( hence the ‘old wives remedies’ or ‘kitchen remedies’), who used local kitchen garden herbs, with trial and error and basically using original state drugs that we now use in refined form—digitalis, belladonna, quinine among others. When villagers and peasants were unwell these were the healers they turned to. In Europe, where it has been well documented, it is believed that such women were also leaders of peasant rebellions against feudal landlords, and hence were labelled as witches and burnt at stake.

Have you ever considered the profile and description of a witch? She has grey hair, hook nose, warts, wrinkles and a complete disregard for social norms, while possessing a vast knowledge of tricks and treatments. Sounds like a regular older woman to me doesn’t she?! Witches are the most enduring feminist icon, with stories being created to make them sound terrifying perhaps because they represent a woman not under the control of any man or any system and definitely not the Church. Even the broomstick is symbolic because it is used by domesticated women to clean house, while the witch uses it in a subversive way to fly off into the night.


The killing of the wicked witch, usually by the knight in shining armour, reinforces the male right to defeat female (ab)users of power, suggesting that women are not entitled to power in the first place. Also a wizard is always assumed to be “good’’ and using power for positive things while a witch is always ‘evil’ and mostly putting curses on random innocents.

Do you know how many women were murdered by such witch hunts provoked and mandated by an unholy combination of the Church and the nobility? (That is a nexus that has stood the test of time. When religion and those with money/power come together, it is always a bad outcome for the common people. )Apparently close to 60,000 witches were killed, burnt or drowned in Europe in the 15th and 16th century. If you want to read more I would strongly recommend an amazing small book called Witches Midwives and Nurses which you can download in its entirety here.

witches midwives

But if you think that is ancient western history, think again. Women are being branded witches and tortured, beaten, burnt, hacked and killed in many, many parts of India. These are power games, attempts to subdue and control all women into submission, property rights, caste wars etc. Horrific as this sounds, please read these articles since this is also happening in India today.fact1

The Church in those times in Europe was promoting ‘healing’ by prayer, leeches, etc. It filled in the vacuum created by this mass destruction of women healers and slowly men took over the ‘medical’ professions. When formal medical training was instituted, women were not admitted into medical colleges. The excuses being given were that they had a small brain, were incapable of being rational, too much emotion, prone to hysteria and that so much studying will reduce their capacity for child bearing.

Women were instead considered suitable for nursing work since it aligned with their ‘natural instinct for caring’. I have yet to meet a woman who desires to clean other people’s poop as a natural instinct.

Basically a convenient rational was provided for a sexist division of roles, where men could be the bosses and give orders and women followed around taking the orders and doing the dirty work. See this short video where Dr Amar Jesani, Founder of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics speaks about patriarchy in medicine:

Patriarchy captured medicine centuries ago and the aftershocks of this are still being felt. We may laud Anandibai Joshi, Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garett Anderson for breaking through these barriers.


My own batch of medical students in 1980s had more girls than boys, but is there a genuine equality?

While I do not recall facing any overt sexism as a medical student, the reality is that after one qualifies and chooses a post graduate specialization, how many female doctors choose or are able to practise in fields which are seen as higher demand and also higher paying? Even if they do, how many can continue on the same trajectory as their male colleagues? How many are in full time attachments vs on calls all the time? How many work part time after they have kids? How many take days off when the children are sick? As compared to….. I don’t know, not even a single guy who has taken a back seat and works part time cos he has kids who come home at 3 pm and he needs to be there for their homework and general child care?


These are larger systemic issues which play out in individual lives. But this is what eventually results in a situation like this in India.

medicial times

And this in USA:

According to an article in the Journal of American College of Cardiology “ Women seeking a career in cardiology face deterrents, including the “impairments to family planning, poor work-life balance, and perceived radiation risks, ”A recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found the wage gap between male and female orthopedic surgeons to be a staggering $41,000, and $34,000 for cardiologists. Over an entire career, a gap like this could total over $1,000,000.

Crunch those figures and mull over those facts……the next post will be on the murky origins and blood curdling stories of the formalized medical practise.

Who is this mystery man ? Find out in the next post !

dr knox


4 thoughts on “From healers to doctors—a rocky road !

  1. Another thought provoking article… had no idea about the witches analogy to powerful and confident women’ and the significance of the broom…thank you.

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