The ancient Greeks and Romans are known for many things, their government, their leaders, and their great empires that our society draws many traditions from. One thing that our society most certainly has in common with these ancient peoples are our use of fungi for medicine and our knowledge about how certain fungi can be detrimental to our health. Dating back these people were believed to have already use mushrooms and molds as medicine, and also learned how deadly they could be. These great people paved the way for us in in so many ways and their use of fungi was just one of them.
Cities throughout the Mediterranean greatly influenced each other during the ancient times, as they traded art, food, traditions, and even medicines. Before the Romans began using medicines to treat ailments, there was a common belief throughout the Mediterranean that diseases were caused by either angered gods or evil demons. People did not change this mindset until the Greek physician, Hippocrates, suggested that this was not the case, and that in fact, nature was the origin of diseases. He reasoned that there were agents in the air that people breathed in that produced diseases, and he called these things “miasmata”, meaning bad air. This simple theory from Hippocrates changed the landscape of medicine during that time. People began to see that their superstitions were not correct. Hippocrates theory also led to a shift in thinking towards taking scientific approaches to advance medicine and cure diseases. While this was a great step forward, there were not many medicines that actually proved themselves to be useful during this time. Physicians used ointments and herbs made from plants and believed that burning these kept infectious agents away from the body.
About 20 years after Hippocrates came Aristotle. While Hippocrates had hypothesized that disease-causing agents were found floating in the air, Aristotle noted that diseases were also spread from person to person. He theorized that some diseases could even be spread from one person to another without any body contact, and through breath alone. Both Hippocrates and Aristotle influenced a man by the name of Marcus Terentius Varro. Varro was a Roman scholar who lived when Julius Caesar had conquered Egypt. He made most of his observations from Roman soldiers who became sick with swamp fever while stationed along the Nile River. Through his observations he noted that the disease must be caused by tiny animals and not by the vapors rising from the swamp as people had believed for many years. During this time, a physician named Galen would use moldy bread to treat his patients that suffered from swam fever. At the time, his colleagues were still using the smoke from herbs and plants to treat their patients. While Galen didn’t know why his treatment worked, it is one of the first documented uses of fungi as medicine.
Although the discovery of penicillin isn’t credited until the 20th century, an...