Hippocrates: The Ultimate Greek Healer
Known as “The Father of Medicine,” Hippocrates shifted medical practice to a more holistic and systemic approach.
In a small valley in the eastern Peloponnese amongst forest-covered mountains lie remnants of the greatest therapeutic center of the ancient world: a sacred sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. This site in Epidaurus is listed today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The healing practices of the sanatorium had spread across the Greco-Roman world and became the cradle of ancient medicine. However, this all changed with Hippocrates (460 BCE-377 BCE) and his most telling contribution of separating medicine from the divine; he believed illnesses had natural causes and should be separated from religious rituals.
Medical Practice & The Humoral Theory
Countering the common thought that the body is merely a series of parts, Hippocrates argued that the body functions as one unified unit and needs to be treated as a whole. He also insisted on the practice of considering objective signs of a disease and not only subjective symptoms. Regarding therapy, Hippocrates saw the physician as the facilitator of nature with medical treatment aimed at enabling natural resistance. Hippocrates focused on the importance of dietary measures, exercise, and rest as mainstays to fend off disease, whereas medications were only supplemented as necessary.
Hippocrates is credited for developing on the theory of the four humors. According to the humoral theory, health is a harmonious balance of four metabolic agents that make up the human body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. An excess or deficiency in one or more of the humors was associated with disease. The balance of these humors would be affected by diet, age, the season of the year, and a range of other factors, and Ancient Greek medicine was based upon restoring the balance. Due to this theory, bloodletting became a common practice; if a disease was associated with an overabundance of blood, physicians attempted to rid the blood to restore the balance of the humors.
The Hippocratic Corpus
Hippocrates identified many diseases and medical conditions for the first time. He was the first physician to systematically categorize diseases as acute, chronic, endemic, and epidemic. Hippocrates introduced other medical terms such as "exacerbation, relapse, resolution, crisis, paroxysm, peak, and convalescence." Documentation of patient interactions in the well-known work, the Hippocratic Corpus, is associated with him and his teachings. Scholars have determined that many of the diseases recorded were early predecessors of current illnesses such as influenza, chickenpox, and malaria.
The Hippocratic Oath
Apart from the insights provided through his writings about ancient illnesses, Hippocrates set a high ethical standard for the practice of medicine with the Hippocratic Oath. While the Oath was originally attributed to him, modern scholars suggest it may have been written by other physicians influenced by Hippocratic medicine. The classic version of the Oath is not fully relevant today; however, a modern version is commonly taken by medical school graduates as they pledge to “do no harm.” Within the modern version, patient confidentiality and acting in the best interests of the patient are still prioritized.
Through Hippocrates's ingenuity, the practice of medicine began to point in a direction that was more rational and scientific. Although the theory of the four humors may sound strange today, it marked the first steps toward the idea that illnesses were related to the environment and disruptions inside the body, rather than the will of the gods. The holistic, systematic, well-documented, and ethical approaches to medical practice set by Hippocrates were ingenious revelations passed down to the Romans, who preserved and refined these skills that are still being used by medical professionals to this day.
Mammas, Ioannis N., and Demetrios A. Spandidos. “Paediatric Virology in the Hippocratic Corpus.” Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine, vol. 12, no. 2, 2016, pp. 541–549., doi:10.3892/etm.2016.3420.
Pappas, Georgios, et al. “Insights into Infectious Disease in the Era of Hippocrates.” International Journal of Infectious Diseases, vol. 12, no. 4, 2008, pp. 347–350., doi:10.1016/j.ijid.2007.11.003.