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The History of Medical Physiology

Did you know that the total length of blood vessels in the human body amounts to approximately 60,000 miles? To put that into perspective, it’s like traveling from New York City to Los Angeles — and back — approximately 24 times. That’s an extensive network of vessels in one person! 

Yet, just a few hundred years ago, estimating this number would have been purely speculative (and likely vastly underestimated). So how did we uncover this and many other fascinating insights about our internal workings? 

It all began with the study of physiology, which has evolved into several specialized subfields over time. Today, we’re delving into the history of medical physiology, tracing its journey from its origins within general physiology to its emergence as a distinct field within the healthcare industry. 

What Is Medical Physiology? 

Before we dive into the history of medical physiology as we know it today, let’s break down the difference between medical physiology and its predecessor, physiology.  

Medical physiology is a specialized branch of physiology that examines the functioning of the human body in the context of health and disease. In contrast, physiology encompasses the broader functions of various living organisms, including humans, plants and animals. 

Professionals use physiology in many industries, including biology, environmental science, agriculture and medicine. Medical physiology, on the other hand, provides crucial insights for medical diagnoses, guides clinical practice, informs treatment decisions and improves patient care. 

The Evolution of Medical Physiology 

How did medical physiology evolve into such an advanced discipline, and what does its future hold? Below, we explore how this branch of medicine transformed from its primitive origins to the sophisticated field it has become today. 

Ancient Roots 

Physiology dates back thousands of years to ancient Greece, India and Egypt. Hippocrates, the great “father of medicine” is responsible for creating the theory of the body’s four humors. He believed that every human body contained four bodily fluids: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood, and that any changes in their normal ratio caused illness.  

While his theory didn’t quite prove to be correct, he did establish the ethical standards that the medical community uses to this day, known today as the Hippocratic Oath. His teachings outlined clinicians’ duties of justice, secrecy, respect for teachers and solidarity amongst peers. 

The Renaissance 

During the Renaissance period (roughly the 14th to 17th century), the study of the human body’s functions expanded dramatically. Several men played crucial roles in the advancement of physiology, including: 

  • Andreas Vesalius
    In the 1500s, anatomist Andreas Vesalius began dissecting human corpses, improving the medical community’s understanding of the body’s structure and anatomy. His efforts came during a time when anatomy was seen by many as a lesser branch of medicine. 
  • William Harvey
    Harvey was one of the pioneers of experimental physiology and the first doctor to describe the circulation and properties of blood, noting how the heart pumps blood through the body. 
  • Girolamo Fracastoro
    This Italian doctor hypothesized that epidemics may be caused by pathogens outside the body, a novel idea during a time when the understanding of microorganisms was limited. 

The Creation of Specialized Fields 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as research on physiology became more prevalent, multidisciplinary specialties emerged within the discipline. One such specialty was medical physiology, which focused on a range of bodily functions including circulation, digestion, metabolism, reproduction and respiration. 

As scientists began to learn more about these functions, medical physiology diverged into several of its own subspecialties, some of which include: 

  • Cardiovascular physiology 
    This field focuses on the function of the heart, blood and blood vessels. Over time, cardiovascular physiology has evolved to include heart-related diseases and explores improved treatment options for individuals affected by them.
  • Renal physiology 
    This area of physiology centers on the kidneys and their role in filtering waste from the body, regulating blood pressure and maintaining fluid balance. Professionals in renal physiology often engage in the study of kidney disease and collaborate with patients to diagnose and manage various renal disorders.
  • Gastrointestinal physiology 
    While the study of the gastrointestinal tract dates back centuries, recent advancements in research have provided medical professionals with a better understanding of its structure and functions. Topics such as nutrient absorption, digestive enzymes, the gut microbiome and appetite regulation are now more accurately investigated. 
  • Musculoskeletal physiology 
    Focused on the functions of muscles, bones and joints, musculoskeletal physiology explores the effects of exercise and physical activity on the body. Additionally, this field addresses disorders such as osteoporosis, muscular dystrophy and osteoarthritis. 

Become an Integral Part of the Future of Medical Physiology

Technological advancements like 3D bioprinting and AI-based predictive models and personalized treatment strategies are paving the way for a promising future in medical physiology. Additionally, there is a growing emphasis on multidisciplinary physiology, leveraging expertise from various fields to tackle intricate questions concerning human health and disease. 

The future of medical physiology is bright. If you’re interested in becoming part of this expanding field, a graduate credential from the University of Florida could be the first step in helping you achieve your goals.  

We offer several programs that are entirely online and provide worthwhile benefits for busy working professionals, such as: 

  • The flexibility to complete your coursework at your convenience. 
  • Affordable tuition rates. 
  • Year-round start dates. 
  • No GRE requirements. 
  • The prestige of earning a graduate credential from one of U.S. News’ top 50 universities. 

Browse our program offerings to find the program that best aligns with your career goals and contact us with any questions you may have. Once you’re ready, apply to your program of choice and embark on your journey toward academic excellence and professional success.