The history of dermatology stretches back thousands of years. Because changes in the skin are readily visible, many ancient cultures had ways to treat common skin problems.
The ancient Egyptians, for example, used arsenic in an attempt to eradicate skin cancer. They also used salt, animal oils, alabaster, even sour milk to improve the appearance of the largest human organ. Years later, both the Greeks and the Romans created special mixtures made of myrrh, pumice, frankincense, and tree resins to bleach or lighten the skin. It was thought that these same concoctions could smooth wrinkles and remove moles and freckles.
Although dermatology was not considered a distinct medical specialty until the nineteenth century, several seminal works on the subject were published much earlier, starting in the 11th century. They include Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine (1025), De Morbis Cutaneis by Geronimo Mercuriali (1572), and Francesco Bianchi’s Dermatologia (1799). The last of these is widely considered to be the first comprehensive textbook on modern dermatology.
The opening of the first great school of dermatology, the Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris (1801), helped establish the medical specialty. By the mid 1800s, dermatologists who trained at specialized schools played an increasingly important role in skin care and repair. One of the biggest breakthroughs came at the end of the century (1899), with the introduction of cryosurgery. Used to remove cancerous skin lesions, the procedure remains the most popular way to treat skin cancer to this day. Other important discoveries in dermatology history include electrosurgery, dermabrasion, chemical peels, and laser treatments.
While laser treatments are an example of how modern dermatology has opened up a wide range of precision treatment options, a student of history will also note that natural light has been used by dermatologists since the Egyptians. Even in 19th century Europe, sunlight was considered a form of treatment for some skin conditions.
With its long history of innovation and experimentation, it is no wonder dermatology is one of the fastest-growing medical specialties.