Health Education through the Ages
By Oswei Temkin
American Journal of Public Health, Vol.30 (1940)
Introduction: Health education is as old as medicine. Even in primitive societies parents have to tell their children of the dangers of poisonous snakes and inedible plants and of the ways in which disease may be prevented by placating the wrath of gods and demons. But though health education is as old as education itself, it has nevertheless undergone decisive changes. Not only were the forms and ways of health education of former times different from ours in many respects; its very concept was sometimes contrary to ours. To a medieval ascetic like St. Bernard the sight of crippled and sick people evoked the comforting thought that their sufferings would soon end and real life begin. Toward the end of the Middle Ages death and decomposition were represented in pictures and poems as reminders of the vanity of beauty and health.
It is not possible in a short time to review the entire historical development of modern health education. I shall, therefore, not try to lead you through the ages in an orderly fashion, beginning with prehistoric man and ending with our present meeting at Pittsburgh. Instead I shall group my remarks around two questions: whose was the task to educate, and who was to be educated?
Today, in a democratic country, the aims of health education are democratic too. We try to make everybody health-conscious and to show to everybody how best to preserve his health. This we can do because in our modern society we possess the means through lectures, newspapers, pamphlets, exhibits, moving pictures, and radio to reach even those who have not been trained in biology and who cannot afford the constant attention of the physician.
Now the democratization of health education has been the result of a long and complicated development. In the democratic age of the ancient Greeks we find something similar, though of course on a very limited scale. At least all the people, rich and poor alike, received such advice as the physicians had to give. Among the writings which go under the name of Hippocrates there are several treatises discussing the general causes of health and disease. It is very probable that some of these writings were speeches made by physicians before crowds of people, and one of these books represents the earliest attack against superstitious medicine and the treatment of disease by magicians, sorcerers, and quacks.