Thursday, November 5, 2009

Air and Aqueducts: Health in the Greco-Roman World

“Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly, should proceed thus... When one comes into a city to which he is a stranger, he ought to consider its situation, how it lies as to the winds and the rising of the sun… and concerning the waters which the inhabitants use, whether they be marshy and soft, or hard, and running from elevated and rocky situations, and then if saltish and unfit for cooking; and the ground, whether it be naked and deficient in water, or wooded and well watered, and whether it lies in a hollow, confined situation, or is elevated and cold; and the mode in which the inhabitants live, and what are their pursuits, whether they are fond of drinking and eating to excess, and given to indolence, or are fond of exercise and labor, and not given to excess in eating and drinking.”
-Hippocrates, On Airs, Waters, and Places, 400 B.C.E.

Although they lacked the knowledge and technology we have today, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had a definite concept of wellbeing and the factors that affected it. Through their awareness of environment and development of sanitary measures and medical resources, these Ancient societies made notable improvements in infrastructure and resources that helped keep their citizens healthy.

For the Greeks, environment, lifestyle, and health resources were all important to health. As the passage above demonstrates, the Greeks were concerned with the impact of seasons, air, water, and soil quality on quality of life: they believed that changes in all of these things could affect one’s health and used this awareness to inform their choices about where to live. They also recognized that one’s individual choices about how to live were important: the ideal life was one in which “nutrition and excretion, exercise and rest were perfectly balanced… For each individual, account had to be taken of age, sex, constitution, and the seasons.” (Rosen, 10) Furthermore, many cities also charged individuals with public health administration services such as drainage and water supply, and had municipal doctors.

The Romans built upon Greek achievements when they took control of the Mediterranean world, carrying on Greek medical practices and introducing several public health improvements. Among these were aqueducts and an organized water supply in many cities that increased access to water, the availability of public baths, and generally helped keep people clean. By the 3rd century C.E. (200s), these sources were delivering about 40 million gallons/day to the Romans, or about 40 gallons per person per day, which is no small achievement. (Rosen, 16) (For comparison, the average American uses 80-100 gallons per day.)

Not everyone in the Ancient world had access to these resources. Many lived in dirty, overcrowded slums without clean water. Nonetheless, over the years these resources became more widely available, with more complete sewerage systems and medical advancements. These changes significantly improved the lives of those in the Ancient world, and lay the foundation for our modern understanding of medicine and public health.

This is the part two in series on the history of public health which I am writing in anticipation of Public Health Thank You Day, a time when Research!America and other leading health organizations recognize public health heroes whose work helps keep our drinking water safe, air clean and children healthy. My hope is that these posts will help illustrate how far we've come, and how much more remains to be done.

To read the first post, which gives an overview of the history of public health history, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment