Throughout History, Skin Health Has Been a Window into the Body

Medicine is full of interesting stories that are deeply entwined with major historical events. Before becoming a dermatologist, I trained in internal medicine and infectious diseases. For my senior lecture, I studied the history of the bubonic plague in San Francisco (I was living there at the time). Now I thought it would be fun to take a short look at the history of dermatology. Skin care specialists have been caring for patients even before Hippocrates, the father of “modern” medicine.

For example, in Ancient Egypt skin cancers were treated with arsenic (which incidentally, is still used on rare occasions to treat some skin diseases). Ancient Egyptians and Greeks used salt, oils, herbal mixtures and tree resins to smoothen wrinkles and remove blemishes (the first cosmetic dermatologists and med spas?). At Savola Aesthetic Dermatology, we use natural products such as Arnica The first textbook of general dermatology was published in 1799, Francesco Bianchi’s Dermatologia and soon after, the first medical school focused on dermatology was founded at the Hospital Saint-Louis in Paris in 1801.

At that time (before CT scans and MRIs), the diagnosis of skin diseases was considered a window into the body. I have seen this rule in action many times in my earlier career as an internist and now as a skin doctor, and keep this in the forefront of my practice every day. One of the most common treatments done by dermatologists today, cryosurgery (“freezing”), was developed in 1899 and as many of you know, is still one of our best ways to treat precancers of the skin. In 1932, the American Board of Dermatology was incorporated to ensure that skin doctors have up-to-date training and true expertise. Board-certification remains one of the key ways for patients to be confident that they are getting the best care for their skin. Today, the American Board of Dermatology continues to set high professional standards for ongoing education of practicing dermatologists and require regular continuing education and re-certification by exam every 10 years. Although I value this process, I am happy to say that I do not have to take this test again until 2026!