The Top 5 Most Important Medicines in the History of the World

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For most of human history, the best known medicines were tearful prayer, burnt offerings, or tearful prayer accompanied by burnt offerings. Not until the 19th Century did medical science truly catch up with other learned disciplines (geometry, for example, we had covered back in the B.C. years) as scientists and doctors began to understand not just what treatments were effective in remedying ailments, but also why. That said, even though their efficacy was improperly understood, some medicines have long had a place in history. Others are welcome newcomers.

5 Honey

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Technically honey acts not as a medicine per say, but as an antiseptic and a treatment for burns, blisters, and lacerations. But it has such a long history and is so effective at serving its “medical purposes,” that we bent the definition and put the stuff on here. Honey can be slathered onto wounds of all types and used to treat implements that must be sterilized. It is actually coming back into favor as an antiseptic agent in the modern era. What’s more, it’s delicious!

4 Chemotherapy

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In the age-old battles against cancer, the best soldiers we have today are chemotherapeutic agents, a variety of medicines that are called by the umbrella term chemotherapy. Chemo can be used both to keep cancer from spreading and to prolong a patient’s life – or, better yet, as part of a treatment plan that will kill off any and all cancer cells. The use of chemo treatments became widespread after WWII, but notably it was the reaction some people had to poison gas exposure during WWI that first turned scientists onto the concept of chemo-type drugs.

3 Garlic

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While garlic’s ability to keep away vampires may be the stuff of legend, its much more impressive ability to fight off harmful bacterium and fungi thanks to naturally occurring allicin compounds make it a pretty outstanding little variety of onion. Today the curative powers of garlic are widely recognized; in the ancient and medieval world, garlic had less of a cause-and-effect role, but still benefited those who happened to eat a lot of it, such as the Egyptians.

2 Cowpox

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Yes, good old cowpox is one of the most important “medicines” of all time. In fact, the very word “vaccine” comes from the Latin word for cow, “vacca,” thanks to the noble albeit unwitting medical contribution of our bovine friends. In the late 18th century, a Brit named Edward Jenner capitalized on the use of exposure to the milder cowpox disease as a preventive measure against smallpox infection. We say “capitalized” because this practice had long been known effective, especially by farming families, but Jenner was the one to firmly establish the correlation, and to him goes most of the credit for launching the era of vaccinations.

1 Penicillin

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The granddaddy of modern antibiotics, penicillin is the first major success story of synthesized antibiotics that can be used to fight a great number of diseases. Most notable was the success of penicillin in fighting scourges such as syphilis, and bacteria like staph. The “discovery” of penicillin is credited to Scotsman Alexander Fleming, though many science-minded types had studied and written about the bacteria-fighting properties of the naturally existing penicillium mold. Penicillin was not in wide use until the middle of the 20th Century.

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