Change & Continuity in Ancient Medicine

This is a summary activity for use after completing work on Ancient Medicine for SHP’s GCSE course Medicine through Time.

The activity is based on pages 32-33 in Essential Medicine and Health through Time by Ann Moore et al.


A WORD version of this activity can be downloaded, click here.


By using students to represent a timeline, key developments and causal factors, this activity aims to:

• consolidate students understanding of the chronology of the prehistoric and ancient periods

• recap key developments in ‘Ancient’ medicine

• identify the roles played by key factors in creating change and continuity

Setting Up

You will need:

a) tabards identifying the 4 periods within ‘Ancient’ medicine – prehistory, Egypt, Greece and Rome

b) tabards identifying key factors i.e. war, government, attitudes, religion, science and technology, individual genius.

c) cards identifying the major developments in the period (see cards below or Essential Medicine TRB page 91)

Sample cards showing major developments

People thought that the gods or evil spirits caused diseases.

Hippocrates said that diseases had natural causes. He said disease was caused by the four humours becoming out of balance.

People thought that illnesses could be cured by supernatural charms and spells

People went to the temples of Asclepios because they thought the gods caused and cured diseases.

They found out more about the body because they embalmed their dead.

To keep their army health, they built their camps away from marshes and provided clean water to their barracks

They used their metal-working skills to improve surgical instruments.

Their government officials and army doctors spread medical knowledge through their empire.

Through trial and error and their own observations, they discovered how to use natural herbs as medicines.

They used their skills as engineers to provide pipelines, baths, sewers and aqueducts.

Medical knowledge was written down and passed on from one generation to the next for the first time.

Galen added to Hippocrates’ ideas and used dissection to find out more about the human body. He wrote 60 medical books.


The Activity

1a. Create a physical timeline across the room by asking 4 students wearing period tabards to place themselves in sequence and then spread out across the room

1b. Hold up each of the 12 development cards in turn and ask the class where each one belongs. Give each card in turn to a student who then takes up the appropriate place on the timeline. This therefore creates a summary of the key developments in each period. The result should look like the timeline on Essential Medicine pp.32-33.

1c. Now take the opportunity to ask questions about the pattern that has been formed e.g. what were the continuities and which were the most long-lasting?

(This is helped by asking students holding cards such as the ones about gods and herbs to move along the timeline to show continuity)

What ideas were developed by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans?

Which of these new ideas was the most important – and why?

2a. Now focus on the roles of the factors. Break up your timeline and return the students to their seats - those with development cards retain them. Place the 6 students wearing factor tabards (war etc) in a line.

2b. Bring out each of the 12 developments in turn – ask the class which factor is it linked to? Place that student in front of the relevant factor – sitting in a row may be best. Continue until all developments are seated in front of the factors. Note that some can be linked to more than one factor. Here the physicality is a real advantage and you can make the point very clear by having the student jump from one row to another – then, taking pity on the student, you can magically produce another version of the same card and ask another student to hold it.

2c. Now do a debriefing discussion in relation to the impact of the factors. Look at the length of each factor column. Discuss which factor/s were most and least important – and ask why? Ask the factors themselves to explain or get the class to suggest reasons.

Notes & Variations

1. You can move onto questions about the impact of factors on change and continuity e.g. did war lead to change or continuity or both – the raw material is all there in human form! Take each factor in turn and look at its impact– did it change medicine or stop medicine – or both. The students holding the development cards can identify how the factor affected them. (This is a lot easier to do than to explain on paper – honestly!) Having the relevant developments and factors in human, mobile form will now facilitate planning written work by moving the students round to form paragraphs and to discuss the order of paragraphs, thus creating a living essay.

2. One of the major problems that students have with the history of medicine is developing a lasting grasp of the chronology, despite being taught it in chronological order. This suggests that simply teaching in chronological order is not sufficient. Students need to undertake specific activities that focus on developing chronological understanding as an end in itself. This activity, requiring students to move into a sequence, is the kind of activity that helps and it also helps to distinguish what was special about each period, which is part of developing a sense of period. As well as sequencing the periods you may wish to help students appreciate the overlap between periods by using more students as periods i.e. have five students as Egypt, 3 as Greece and 3 as Rome and move them into the correct chronological pattern to show how the empires overlapped each other.


1. How did tackling this revision activity through this physical activity affect students’ learning? e.g. was understanding of chronology stronger?

2. What was the impact of this activity on understanding of changes and continuities within the period and students’ abilities to make comparisons?

3. How else could this technique be used within your course?

4. What, if anything, will you do more effectively next time?

This Page




Setting Up

The Activity

Notes & Variations