Wound treatment in history


One of the oldest medical manuscripts known, is a Sumerian clay tablet that dates back to 2200 BC. The tablet describes, perhaps for the first time, a basic procedure for the treatment of wounds, which it called the 'three healing gestures'. These gestures were, washing the wounds, making the plasters and bandaging the wound.

Over time, people have tried many different ways to help wounds heal faster. This includes treatments for both new (acute) wounds and those that take a long time to heal (chronic). As medicine progressed, there was a shift from spiritual beliefs to a more scientific understanding of how treatments work.

In ancient times, what people referred to as 'plasters', is the present-day equivalent of wound dressings. These plasters were mixtures of various substances including mud or clay, plants and herbs. Plasters were applied to wounds to provide protection and to absorb bleeding etc.

One of the interesting, earliest known wound care products was beer. The Sumerians brewed at least 19 different types of beer. An interesting prescription for wound healing described in Mesopotamian culture stated: 'Pound together fur-turpentine, pine-turpentine, tamarisk, daisy, flour of inninnu strain; mix in milk and beer in a small copper pan; spread on skin; bind on him, and he shall recover.'

Ancient Egypt

When people think of ancient Egypt, they often think of pyramids and mummies. But the Egyptian art of wrapping the bodies of the dead, probably influenced the bandaging of wounds. Also the art of preventing decomposition by embalming, may have contributed to early advances in controlling infection.

The Egyptians may have been the first people to use adhesive bandages and perhaps the first people to apply honey to wounds. Honey, grease, and lint were the main components of the most common plaster used by Egyptians. Lint made from vegetable fiber probably aided drainage of the wound. Grease and honey may have protected the wound from infection. While honey appears to be an effective antibacterial agent, it has many other healing properties. Honey has been used for thousands of years and is still part of many advanced wound dressings.


The Greeks stressed the importance of cleanliness. They recommended washing the wound with clean water, often boiled first, vinegar (acetic acid), and wine. The Greeks also differentiated between 'fresh', or acute and non-healing, or 'chronic' wounds. One of the interesting excerpts from the Hippocratic collection about wound healing was: 'For an obstinate ulcer, sweet wine and a lot of patience should be enough.'

Middle Ages

In Europe, the Middle ages saw something of a regression of wound care back to potions and charms. Most people in Medieval times never saw a doctor. They were treated by the local 'wise-person', who may have used various herbal concoctions. Or the barber, who pulled out teeth, set broken bones and performed other operations. Amputations were often the proposed solution for damaged or infected body parts. And surgery had a very poor rate of survival.

A drawing of a leg wound neing treated

Surgery in the Middle Ages could often result in a person dying.

Video: what was the surgery survival rate in the 19th century?

Medical school of Salerno

The first major medical centres in Europe was in Salerno, Italy where Christian and Muslim communities lived side by side. In the 9th and 10th centuries, Arabic medical treatises, were translated into Latin, which augmented the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen etc. As a result, the school rose to prominence in Europe and the medical practitioners of Salerno, both men and women, were unrivaled in the Medieval Western World.

Trial and error

Much of the history of wound healing throughout the ages, relied on trial and error. Knowledge was accumulated via experience rather than the modern scientific methods that developed after germ theory in the 19th century. The scientific discovery of bacteria was a major breakthrough in the area of wound healing and management. And significantly impacted the survival rates of those undergoing surgical procedures. New weaponry in war such as muskets and cannons, that produced new injuries, were also a factor in the pursuit of better wound treatment.

Video: BMJ - Surgery survival rates in the 19th century.