Legends about Sts. Cosmas and Damian far outrun any verifiable historical details about their lives.
A meager collection of long-lost documents builds a narrative that Cosmas and Damian were twins and natives of Saudi Arabia who studied medicine in Syria. They became known as the “moneyless ones” for refusing to accept payment for their healing services. They likely were martyred north of Antioch in the early fourth century.
The earliest historical evidence of these holy brothers in history dates to about 400 A.D. Around that time a pagan visitor recorded a visit to a shrine dedicated to Cosmas and Damian in Asia Minor. In the fifth century, a church was built to their memory in Constantinople and, in the sixth century, a pagan temple in the Roman Forum was rededicated as a Basilica in their honor. The apse mosaic of Rome’s Basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian shows Sts. Peter and Paul presenting the twins to the glorified Christ.
Most of the wealth of miracles that have long been attributed to Sts. Cosmas and Damian involve healing, in keeping with their medical profession. The fame of these miracles, together with their martyrdom, was so widespread in the early church that they joined that elite class of martyrs, saints, virgins and popes whose names were inserted into the Roman Canon, or Eucharistic Prayer I, where they are still read at Mass today. Their names also ring out in ancient litanies still sung at solemn Masses.
No definitive details have been preserved, but it can be supposed that Cosmas and Damian died like so many other martyrs — by crucifixion, beheading or drowning at sea; by the goring of beasts, or by their flesh being burned off in a roar of flames.
Some of the legends tell of various unsuccessful attempts to dispatch the brothers prior to the definitive end of their mortal lives. No miracle saved Cosmas and Damian from their ultimate, violent end. As physicians, they knew well the frailty of the human body. They understood their own bodies to be cracked vessels flooded temporarily with the Holy Spirit of God. And when the time came for that earthen vessel to return to the clay from whence it came, they bravely gave up what never was theirs.
They offered a witness so shocking that it was seared into the memories of those who saw it, a witness so other-worldly that a few emulated it, and untold masses of others honored it through prayer and devotion, as we still do today.
Cosmas and Damian are the patron saints of pharmacy and medicine.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini