Burns Treatment in Classical Times

Mr Brandon Meikle1, Professor John Pearn1

1Centre for Children’s Burns and Trauma Research, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia


Extensive literature exists on the evolution of the treatment of thermal injury, particularly practices that have been developed throughout the last millennium. What is less documented is what ancient peoples used to treat these life-altering injuries. This paper reviews what is known of the treatment of thermal injury by Indigenous Australians, the oldest surviving continuous culture in the world, as well as some of the epicentres of the ancient world: Egypt, Greece, Rome, Baghdad and Persia. This paper reviews these chronologies and draws interpretive similarities from these disparate cultures, connecting the cures and remedies used by the ancients with current best-practice. Traditional Australian Indigenous treatment of burns included the application of a variety of botanical species, particularly Dendrobium affine. Knowledge of the management of thermal injury in ancient Egypt comes from fragments preserved in both the Ebers and Edward Smith papyri. The author(s) of the Ebers papyrus well understood the day-by-day development of the clinical appearance of burns and included an extensive list of directions for their treatment. The ancient Greek scholar Hippocrates and Roman writers such as Galen, Dioscorides and Celsus all provided information on the use of many topical remedies for dressing and treating burns. In Persia, Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine was the first to delineate between contact burns and scalds; and to specify different treatments for acute and chronic burnt tissue. It is upon these ancient practices that modern treatment of burns has evolved, and “to whom in different ways our own civilisation is so deeply indebted”.


Brandon Meikle is a current PhD student based in the Centre for for Children’s Burns and Trauma Research, Centre for Children’s Health Research, Queensland Children’s Hospital. He holds a Bachelor of Biomedical Science (Hons) from the University of Queensland, where he completed his Honours in Forensic Anthropology. He has special interests in the history of healthcare, with particular emphasis on the management of thermal injuries. The theme of his PhD is the treatment of children’s hypertrophic burn scars using Microneedling and Ablative Fractional CO2 Laser.

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