Mexican medicine developed from approximately 2000 B.C. to 1521 A.D., the time of the Spanish conquest. Although the Spanish conquerors systematically destroyed the great Aztec libraries, making it difficult to identify exactly which practices came originally from which of the Mexican cultures, the Olmecs, Toltecs, and later the Zapotecs and their Mixtec conquerors are believed to have originated and spread the knowledge and civilization which was finally taken over by the Aztecs. The achievements of South American medicine in the Mayan and Incan civilizations may also be traceable back to the teachings that spread from the Olmec lands of southern Mexico.
The sacred calendar was the most important achievement of the Mexican Indians and was the center of their religion. All important life events were regulated by the calendar, including the naming of children, the planting and harvesting of maize and the celebration of religious and festival days. During the thousand years of Zapotec peace and the Mixtec conquest that followed, artistry, goldworking, medical techniques and herbal lore were developed and refined. But by approximately 1425 A.D., the Aztec empire had reached southward from Tenochtitlan to heart of the Olmec lands and the relatively peaceful rule of the Mixtecs and Zapotecs gave way to the Aztec conquerors.
Although all of the Mexican Indian cultures believed that divine punishment was the cause of diseases, the Aztecs in particular believed in many vengeful and bloodthirsty gods who punished sinners by striking them with diseases. These angry gods had to be propitiated with sacrifices, and the best sacrifices of all were human sacrifices. To ward off the diseases and plagues, the Aztecs practiced wholesale human sacrifice, and many thousands of conquered Zapotecs and Mixtecs, who had built the great pyramids and created the great Mexican achievements of the calendar and goldworking, died on Aztec altars.
The wealthy Aztec rulers continued to support development of Mexican medicine. Runners were sent out in search of new herbs that might have value as medicines, and a royal botanical garden and zoo were maintained. Great libraries of Nahuatl texts held the collected knowledge of herbal and medical techniques which were used by Aztec doctors to diagnose illnesses and apply treatments.
The importance of the calendar and astrology was reflected in Mexican beliefs that an eclipse was dangerous for unborn children. Another form of illness was the loss of the tonal, equivalent to the spirit or fortune/destiny of a person.
Many diseases could be traced to the displeasure of specific gods. Xipetotec, the god of spring, gave skin diseases to those who displeased him; Xochipilli, the god of fruitfulness, inflicted venereal diseases when angered, and the goddess Tlazolteotl caused epileptic convulsions. Tlaloc, the rain god, also brought pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma and colds.
Since both knowledge of techniques for placating the gods and knowledge of medical techniques were needed, two major divisions emerged in Aztec medicine. The two types of Aztec physicians were the ticitl (sorcerers) and the tepati (physicians). The tepati were then further subdivided into specializations of texoxtl (surgeons), tlamatepatli (internists), tecoani (bloodletters), temixiutiani (midwives and pediatricians), and papiani (pharmacists).
Mexican physicians recognized and named the different diseases and employed specific treatments for each; they also recognized the principle of contagion, and took steps to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. Cold, wind, and dampness were also seen as being generators of disease in addition to the capriciousness of the gods.
Mexican doctors performed trephinations, set fractures, applied splints and stitched up wounds using human hair. They treated rheumatism with steam baths and massages, administered enemas, and applied a wide variety of herbal medications including immersions in herbal baths. Red chiles were administered to stop hemorrhages and vomiting of blood, nopal to reduce swelling, ipecac to induce vomiting, and coca for anesthesia in surgical procedures. Uxtli, a preparation made of wood-tar, was used to treat skin problems. Fevers were treated with a decoction of willow leaves steeped in water.
In treatment, Mexican doctors prayed and made offerings to the offended gods who had inflicted the diseases, and also appealed to the sympathetic gods of medicine: Tonantzin, the earth goddess from whom came all herbal remedies; Tzapotlatena, goddess of pharmacy; and Quetzalcoatl, the first teacher of medical knowledge. A small amount of blood might be drawn as an offering to a god from whom the patient was seeking healing or intervention.
Quarantine was also employed for contagious diseases, with patients being sent to quarantine compounds, and the Mexican people burned aromatic oils and resins, both in ceremonies and as a matter of housekeeping in their homes, to fumigate the air and to keep away mosquitoes and flies. The Aztecs also kept their cities clean and hygenic with strict punishments for those who fouled the streets or dumped sewage in the water, and frequent bathing was recommended.
Materia Medica and Important Texts
Most of the knowledge of ancient Mexican medicine was lost with the destruction by the Spaniards of the Aztec libraries. Later attempts at recreating the lost knowledge included the Codice Badiano, an herbal text written in Nahuatl by Martin de la Cruz and translated into Latin by Juan Badiano in 1552, and the history of Mexican culture in twelve volumes by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, also written in 1540’s to 1560’s, which includes medical information in Books 10 and 11.
Mexican physicians utilized an extensive herbal repertoire that included valerian, sarsparilla, arnica, papaya, tamarind, rhubarb, nopal, ipecac, coca, chile, maize, maguey, cinchona, and datura (toloache), among many others. Willow leaves were used for fevers and the bark of the guava tree was used as an astringent.
- Chavez, Dr. Ignacio, Mexico en la Cultura Medica. Mexico D.F.: El Colegio Nacional, 1947.
- Kelly, Isabel, Folk Practices in North Mexico: Birth Customs, Folk Medicine, and Spiritualism in the Laguna Zone. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1965.
- Perrone, Bobbette, Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors. Cowritten with H. Henrietta Stockel and Victoria Kreuger. Norman [Oklahoma] : University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
- Schendel, Gordon, Medicine in Mexico: From Aztec Herbs to Betatrons. With the collaboration of Dr. Jose Alvarez Amezquita and Dr. Miguel E. Bustamante. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968.
- Thorwald, Jugen, Science and the Secrets of Early Medicine : Egypt – Mesopotamia – India – China – Mexico – Peru. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York : Harcourt Brace and World Inc., 1963.