Gastroenterology is the branch of medicine that studies and treats the gastrointestinal tract. The digestive system is a crucial component of human health; the body breaks down food and drink to convert it into usable energy throughout the day. The history of this area of medicine continues to evolve.
Since it is such a fundamental part of how our bodies function, it is not surprising that the study of the digestive tract has an ancient pedigree. In John F. Nunn’s comprehensive and authoritative 1997 book, ‘Ancient Egyptian Medicine,’ he conducts an extensive survey of papyrus scrolls from the 10th Dynasty (2125 BC) that identify one Irynakhty as a court physician to the Pharaoh Merykare. Irynakhty was probably the first to delve into gastroenterology through scientific experiment. Irynakhty conducted experiments by feeding subjects a variety of diets and observing the effects it had on moods, behavior, and health.
The science of gastroenterology came into its own in the early 18th century when Lazzaro Spallanzani made a number of breakthroughs. Spallanzani’s ‘Dissertationi di fisica animale e vegetale’ conclusively disproved the theory of trituration. Trituration was the prevailing theory for centuries which posited that food was ground up inside the body, as by a rock crusher or mortar and a pestle. Spallanzani was the first to show that the digestive process was primarily chemical, that the enzymes (though he did not call them that) were responsible for turning food input into waste output. His work firmly established gastroenterology as a specialty within the medical field. Once established, it was populated by excellent scientists.
Burrill Bernard Crohn was one such scientist. Crohn worked at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. During his time there, Crohn began noticing a number of patients suffering from intestinal abnormalities that were inconsistent with other diseases. Other specialists believed the symptoms were an indication of tuberculosis, but Crohn identified it reginal ileitis. It is, of course, known today as Crohn’s disease.
In 2005, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren made another fantastic breakthrough. For decades, the prevailing view was that peptic ulcers were caused by stress or overly acidic and spicy food. Marshall and Warren are Australian physicians who developed a diagnostic test that identified Helicobacter pylori as the real cause of ulcers as well as a contributing factor in stomach cancer. This discovery undid years of false science that birthed a slew of curative treatments that sought to cure ulcers via treatments that did not address the underlying root of the problem. For their work, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won the Nobel Prize in 2005.
Gastroenterology’s roots stretch back to the time of the pyramids, and new developments in the field are helping to improve, and even save, the lives of people all over the world. It is a specialty area within the medical field that continues to attract bright minds because of the key function the gastrointestinal system plays in our health.