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Monday, 25 January, 1999, 10:04 GMT
When East meets West
The exhibition examines the meeting of medical minds
Eastern medicines are becoming more popular in the West, but few people realise how the various cultures have exchanged ideas.

Now an exhibition at the Science Museum in London explores how they have interacted on medicine through the centuries.

Called East Meets West: Medical Ideas on the Move, it looks at examples of how ideas and technologies have moved from one side of the world to another.

It opens on Thursday and is based on an exhibition presented by the Wellcome Trust.

Neil Fazakerley is curator of the exhibition.

He said: "It's attractive because it's taking a medical history story but from a slightly different angle, showing how the different cultures have interacted.

"It's obvious that Eastern medical practices are becoming more popular in the West but maybe people don't know that ideas have been exchanged for thousands of years and that Western medicine did not grow up in isolation."

The exhibition details four main areas:

Ancient Greek and Islamic medical ideas, and how they were reborn into Western culture

The exhibition starts in the ninth and tenth centuries when Baghdad was the centre of Islamic science and its highly sophisticated medical system.

Through the translation work of Persian scholars, ancient Greek medical thought was brought into the Islamic medical system.

It was when Westerners started charging into the East on crusades during the twelfth century that European scholars became increasingly interested in Islamic medicine.

Arabic material was translated into Latin, the European scholars' language of the time, thus preserving the Greek tradition that may otherwise have been lost.

Co-existence of Islamic and Indian traditions and the development of Western medicine in colonial India

The traditional Indian medical system - known as ayurveda or "the knowledge of life" - has existed in some form for more than 2000 years.

Indian watercolour
"Man of the medical caste, physician" (Wellcome Institute Library)
During foreign invasions from the eleventh century onwards the Islamic system of medicine was brought to India.

The Indian name for Islamic medicine, "unani" refers originally to the Greeks.

The two systems complemented each other well and both ayurveda and unani flourish today in India.

European colonists from the sixteenth century onwards, gained knowledge of plants, diseases and surgical techniques that were unknown in the West.

One such example is rauwolfia serpentia, a plant used in traditional Indian medicine. The active ingredient is today used to treat hypertension and anxiety in the West.

The flow of ideas turned with the growth of the British Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as many Western-style hospitals and medical colleges were established in India

How the West has adopted ideas from the Far East and vice versa

Interaction began in the seventeenth century, when Christian missionaries sent home descriptions of the medicines and techniques they saw there.

Europeans became aware of the Chinese practices of feeling the pulse, acupuncture and moxibustion.

Moxibustion counters irritation and heals small wounds by placing on the skin and igniting a cone or cylinder of moxa, a tuft of soft combustible substance.

Western medicine gained a foothold in the Far East in the nineteenth century. Western-style hospitals and medical schools were set up and foreign medical textbooks were translated of into Chinese.

Today Chinese medicine is becoming increasingly popular in the West. Acupuncture is probably the best known technique and is used to treat a wide variety of complaints.

However, studies suggest that moxibustion is successfully applied to conditions such as schizophrenia, back pain, arthritis, cancer and skin diseases.

A vaccination scene from 1807, by L. L. Boilly (Wellcome Institute Library)

Innoculation - a true example of collaborative medicine

"A good example of the exchange of medical ideas between East and West is that of immunisation," the exhibition says.

Smallpox inoculation has long been used by physicians in Asia and Africa by deliberately attempting to give people a mild smallpox infection.

One of the ways they did this for children was to make them wear the underwear of an infected child.

The technique became known in Europe in the eighteenth century this technique and was practised for a while on the British aristocracy.

The European medical establishment accepted the practice after Dr Edward Jenner developed a safer technique of vaccination in 1798.

This used the less dangerous cowpox rather than smallpox.

Vaccination, using Dr Jenner's method, then returned East, and was used in India and China by the beginning of the nineteenth century.

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