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Nebuchadnezzar II: 1st documented "scientific" experiment


Historical Perspectives


The story of our being, termed History, is filled with several fascinating accounts and lessons. As we move forward and make significant advances in our field, we often forget to look back at what our predecessors did and how that might have changed the course of our lives. To bring forward and share stories from the history of research and science, we invite you to read our blogs on Historical Perspectives.


 

We begin with the first ever "scientific" experiment known to mankind "published" as a biblical description and vaguely resembling modern clinical trials, performed by a Babylonian King called Nebuchadnezzar II.



King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (605 BC - 562 BC). Source: Flickr (CC0 1.0)


In the book of Daniel I, we come across our "scientist", who was neither a medical practitioner nor a researcher of any sorts, but in fact, a renowned military leader and the most powerful ruler of his times. While in command of Babylon (605 BC-562 BC), he, one day, demanded his subjects to consume only meat and wine. Those who adhered to his command would eventually become the "control" group of the earliest known investigation. But, you may wonder why did he want to implement this rule in the first place. Our "scientist" believed (hypothesized) that a diet of only meat and alcohol would result in a healthy, vigorous, physical condition of his subjects. (He considered such dietary habits to be that of a "healthy lifestyle", which as we have since, after thorough research and collection of evidence, have proven not to be the case.)


However, he came across some outlaws - those who objected to this law. These individuals were inclined towards a herbivorous diet rather than following the newly instated rule of the land. In those times, going against the will of their commander, might have in all likelihood led to their imprisonment, execution, or worse, torture. But, our royal "scientist" was unexpectedly intrigued by the idea. He was curious to see whether the healthiness of a person differs based on the type of food they consumed. And so, appears his "study group", he grants the mavericks the right to go on a diet consisting of legumes and water - but only for a period of 10 days ("study period"). He orders that, at the end of this period, the health and physical prowess of the vegetarians should be examined and compared to that of his meat-eating-followers. Thereby, we come across the "outcome" (health/well-being) of King Nebuchadnezzar's "study".


Upon comparing the health of the individuals in his study group (legumes + water) and his control group (meat + wine), our "scientist" finds that the former are better nourished and healthier than the latter. Obviously, there were no complicated statistical analysis performed by our pseudo-scientist, but indeed, he made an interesting observation, which in the many centuries to come after his time, will be proven to be scientifically true. And so, he concludes his flawed and modest experiment to make one of the first evidence-based decisions and allow the people the liberty to consume a vegetarian diet. Hence was the story of the first-ever guided public health decision made in an era long before the advent of clinical research as we know it.


Today, clinical trials are a much more complex process - randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, performed in four phases with increasing number of subjects included, with each phase serving a specific purpose and having pre-defined outcomes/end-points, involving thorough designing and complex statistical analyses. Nonetheless, this Babylonian king's story highlights a fundamental aspect of research - curiosity!


Historical Perspective: King Nebuchadnezzar II's experiment. House of EBM


Phases of Clinical Trails and their purpose. House of EBM

 

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