Human history is very much a history of medicine and medical technology. You can even make the argument that the very reason we’re able to have the advanced society we have today is because of medical breakthroughs. Increased life expectancy, decreased infant mortality, hospitals, vaccines, antibiotics—I can go on for hours. It all adds up to a longer, healthier life, and that means more time to participate in society. The usual retirement age is 65, and it’s entirely likely it’ll hit 70 before I do, and the quality of life at such an advanced age is also steadily rising. That means more living grandparents (and great-grandparents and great-uncles and so on) and more people with the wisdom that hopefully comes with age.
Not too long ago, things were different. The world was full of dangers, many of them fatal. Disease could strike at any time, without warning, and there was little to be done but wait or pray. Childbirth was far more often deadly to the mother or the child…or both. Even the simplest scratches could become infected. Surgery was as great a risk as the problems it was trying to solve. (Thanks to MRSA and the like, those last two are becoming true again.) If you dodged all those bullets, you still weren’t out of the woods, because you had to worry about all those age-related troubles: blindness, deafness, weakness.
Life in, say, the Middle Ages was very likely a life of misery and pain, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t medicine, as we’ll see. It was far from what we’re used to today, but it did exist. And there is probably no part of civilization more strongly connected to magic than medicine. What would happen if the two really met?
Through the ages
Medicine, in the sense of “things that can heal you”, dates back about as far as humanity itself. And for all of that history except the last few centuries, it was almost exclusively herbal. Every early culture has its own collection of natural pharmaceuticals (some of them even work!) accompanied by a set of traditional cures. In recent decades, we’ve seen a bit of a revival of the old herbalism, and every drugstore is stocked with ginkgo and saw palmetto and dozens of other “supplements”. Whether they’re effective or not, they have a very long history.
Non-living cures also existed, and a few were well-known to earlier ages. Chemical medicine, however, mostly had to wait for, well, chemistry. The alchemists of old had lists of compounds that would help this or that illness, but many of those were highly toxic. We laugh and joke about the side effects of today’s drugs, but at least those are rare; mercury and lead are going to be bad for you no matter what.
Surgery is also about as old as the hills. The Egyptians were doing it on eyes, for example, although I think I’d rather keep the cataracts. (At least then I’d be like the Nile, right?) Amputation was one of the few remedies for infection…which could also come from surgery. A classic Catch-22, isn’t it? Oh, and don’t forget the general lack of anesthesia.
What the earlier ages lacked most compared to today was not the laundry list of pills or a dictionary of disorders. No, the thing that most separates us from earlier times when it comes to medicine is knowledge. We know how diseases spread, how germs affect the body, how eyes and ears go bad. We’re unsure on a few minor details, but we’ve got the basics covered, and that’s why we can treat the sick and injured so much better than before. Where it was once thought that an illness was the will of God, for instance, we can point to the virus that is its true cause.
And then comes magic
So let’s take that to the magical world. To start, we’ll assume the mundane niceties of medieval times. That’s easier than you might think, because our world’s magic won’t be enough to let its users actually see viruses and other infectious agents. Nor will it allow them to see into the human body at the same level of detail as a modern X-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound. And we’ll short-circuit the obvious idea by saying that there are no cure-all healing spells. Real people don’t have hit points.
But improvements aren’t hard to find. Most of medicine is observation, and we’ve already seen that the magical world has spells that can aid in knowledge, recall, and sensory perception. An increase in hearing, if done right, is just as good as a stethoscope, and we can imagine similar possibilities for the other senses.
Decreasing the ability of the senses is another interesting angle. In normal practice, it’s bad form to blind someone, but a numbing spell would be an effective anesthetic. A sleeping spell is easy to work and has a lot of potential in a hospital setting. And something to kill the sense of smell might be a requirement for a doctor or surgeon as much as the patient!
The practice of surgery itself doesn’t seem like it can benefit much from the limited magic we’re giving this world. It’s more the peripheral aspects that get improved, but that’s enough. Think sharper scalpels, better stitches, more sterilization.
Herbal medicine gets better in one very specific way: growth. It’s not that our mages can cast a spell to make a barren field bloom with plant life, but those plants that are already there can grow bigger and faster. That includes the pharmaceuticals herbs as well as grain crops. Magic and alchemy are closely related, so it’s not a stretch to get a few early chemical remedies; magic helps here by allowing easier distillation and the like.
Some of the major maladies can be cured by magical means in this setting. Mostly, this goes back to the sensory spells earlier, but now as enchantment. We’ve established that spells can be “stored”, and this gets us a lot of medical technology. An amulet or bracelet to deaden pain (pain is merely a subset of touch, after all) might be just as good as opium—or its modern equivalents. Sharpened eyesight could be achieved by magic as easily as eyeglasses or Lasik surgery.
The field of medicine isn’t one that can be solved by magic alone. Not as we’ve defined it, anyway. But our magical kingdom will have counterparts to a few of the later inventions that have helped us live longer, better lives. This world will still be dangerous, but prospects are a bit brighter than in the real thing.
What magic does give our fantasy world is a kind of analytical framework, and that’s a necessary step in developing modern medicine. Magic in this world follows rules, and the people living there know that. It stands to reason that they’ll wonder if other things follow rules, as well. Investigating such esoteric mysteries will eventually bear fruit, as it did here. Remember that chemistry was born from alchemy, and thus Merck and Pfizer owe their existence to Geber and Paracelsus.
Chemistry isn’t the only—or even the most important—part of medicine. Biology doesn’t directly benefit from magic, but it shares the same analytical underpinnings. Physical wellness is harder to pin down, but people in earlier times tended to be far more active than today. For the most part, they ate healthier, too. But magic won’t help much there. Indeed, it might make things worse, as it means less need for physical exertion. Also, the “smaller” world it creates is more likely to spread disease.
In the end, it’s possible that magic’s medical drawbacks outweigh its benefits. But that’s okay. Once the rest of the world catches up, it’ll be on its way to fixing those problems, just like we have.