Dermatology as a medical and surgical discipline did not appear in scientific works until 1572. It was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that the application evolved and began to yield important medical breakthroughs. However, before its evolution as a scientific application, skincare and the treatment of skin conditions was an integral part of early medicine as far back as the ancient world.
Dermatology in Ancient Cultures
Skincare and dermatology were practised in the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. The ancient Egyptians would use lotions made up of animal oils, salt, and perished milk to improve the appearance of their skin. Cleopatra reportedly bathed in baths of milk to soften and smooth her skin. The Egyptians also began experimenting with many medical techniques that would later be used in the 19th and 20th centuries. They experimented with natural light to treat skin conditions and sandpaper to eradicate wrinkles.
The Greeks and Roman cultures also developed an anti-ageing mixture to remove wrinkles. The mixture consisted of pumice, frankincense, myrrh, and tree resin. A less pleasant mixture of urine and pumice was also being used in India to the same effect.
There are also records of early skin cancer treatments from the ancient world. The Egyptians believed that applying arsenic to the skin could kill cancer cells. By 1025, this treatment had evolved, zinc oxide was the preferred method of treating skin cancer.
The earliest Anglo-Saxon reference to dermatology is Bald’s Leechbook. The medical text was written in the 8th or 9th century and outlined Saxon remedies to conditions like impotence, coughing, and, surprisingly, contained the recipe for a potion to help men tolerate women’s chattering.
For all of its surprises, Bald’s Leechbook also included a treatment for a Staphylococcus bacterial infection, commonly known as a Staph infection today. The book called for an ointment made of garlic, leek, honey, wine, onion and the fresh bile of a slaughtered cow, to be applied to the infection. Scientists recently revisited the method and found it to be surprisingly effective, killing around 90% of Staph bacteria in a lab. Despite its success, the repulsive concoction is unlikely to be on shelves in the near future, however, it does represent a remarkable achievement for Anglo-Saxon dermatology.
Medieval medicine, unlike that in the ancient world, was focussed on faith in authority. Where ancient healers would carry out rational experimentation and observe and document results, medicine and dermatology in the Middle Ages were far more faith-based. There was not the same level of experimentation and development as in the preceding and seceding periods.
Medieval doctors paid special attention to cosmetic skin conditions. Patients were treated for scabies, facial spots, baldness and ulcers among other conditions. The most popular treatments in the period involved topical creams. Mixtures of herbs, sulphur, mercury, tar, ground glass, and plaster were applied to the patient’s skin. There were also cosmetic lotions for toning women’s faces and breasts, depilatory treatments, and remedies for blemishes.
However, developments in dermatology were limited during the Medieval period. When carrying out autopsies, Medieval surgeons would ignore the skin, simply making their incision then proceeding to the flesh and internal organs. This is also reflected in the anatomical tables in schools for surgeons in the period. The drawings and posters depict the muscles, nerves, and tendons, but exclude the skin.
Dermatology’s Evolution as a Scientific Application
It wasn’t until after the Medieval Period, in 1563, when a Flemish doctor named Andreas van Wesel published his findings on human anatomy. His text included a section on the skin, which was the first to analyse the skin in terms of layers. His work paved the way for the evolution of dermatology as a scientific application and medical discipline.
In 1572, Italy’s Geronimo Mercuriali published De morbis cutaneis, roughly translated to ‘On the diseases of the skin’. This was the first medical writing dedicated exclusively to the study of dermatology. Other subsequent studies followed as the topic gained notoriety. Increased interest in the field led to the establishment of the first school dedicated to dermatology in 1801, in Hospital Saint-Louis in Paris.
Once the application had its own school, scientific developments in the field led to the rapid evolution of the discipline. Robert Willan published his findings in 1808, which identified eight different categories of skin disease. Dermatologists began using chemicals to smooth wrinkles and treat acne scarring. By the turn of the century cryosurgery was being used as a course of treatment, and in the early 1900s, dermatologists began performing liposculpture and hair transplant procedures.
Dermatology in the Twentieth Century
One of the biggest dermatological breakthroughs came in the 1950s when dermatologists pioneered the use of lasers in the treatment of skin conditions. Dermatologists in the 1980s and 1990s applied the technology to hair removal, treating skin lesions, and skin resurfacing.
Technological advances within the medical field and beyond are contributing to important dermatological developments and discoveries today. Dermatology is still one of the fastest expanding medical specialities, and the refinement of treatments and techniques is an ongoing process. The vast technological developments of the twenty-first century have had a profound implication on the field. The full impact and contribution of modern technologies for dermatology is still being explored and no-doubt there will be more significant discoveries in the near future.
The Devonshire Clinic is at the forefront of this exploration. It is committed to the use of state-of-the-art, cutting-edge diagnostic and treatment techniques to provide the highest level of dermatological care for our patients in both medical and cosmetic dermatology.
I can't recommend this clinic highly enough. The treatment I received for my skin cancer was first class