The works of Hippocrates provided much of the basis for the subsequent development of medical science. Before Hippocrates’ writings, Greeks considered illness chiefly as a spiritual malady, both caused and cured according to the whims of the gods. Though Hippocrates served as the central figure in ancient Greek medicine, other practitioners both paved the way for and elaborated upon his accomplishments.
Greek Medicine Before Hippocrates
Ancient Greeks originally saw illness as symptomatic of spiritual problems. Greeks considered illness a divine punishment, and recovery a blessing. Prayer to certain gods, such as Asclepius and Apollo, formed the basis of treatment. Greek physicians before Hippocrates did make some lasting contributions, however. Pythagoras, born around 580 BC, established a connection between diet and health, and advocated a vegetarian diet. Alcmaeon, who lived in the 5th century BC, discovered the optic nerve. The most renowned physician before Hippocrates, Demokedes of Croton, had a public clinic in Athens. His accomplishments included the successful treatment of sprained ankles and the removal of a tumors.
The Writings of Hippocrates
Born around 460 BC, Hippocrates confounds historians, as little information remains about his life. In fact, though 76 works bear attribution to Hippocrates, many of them were certainly the work of later writers. Despite this, Hippocrates has renown as the father of medicine thanks to important foundational practices contained in the writings. Hippocrates preached an ethical basis for medical practice and receives credit for the Hippocratic Oath. Almost all modern doctors swear to some version of the oath, which requires them to serve patients' best interests, focus on prevention and respect personal privacy. Hippocrates also created the notion of medical prognosis. The observation-based prediction of an illness’s development was an important step in the history of medicine, as it allowed physicians to identify specific illnesses that responded to individualized treatment.
The Four Humors and Material Cause
The notion of the four humors underlies much of Hippocratic theory. Hippocrates held that four bodily fluids, called the humors, formed the basis of health or illness Outside factors, such as diet or the weather, could influence humors in a positive or negative way. The humor theory, though fundamentally flawed, established the notion of physical causes for illness, and provided a foundation for the practice of diagnosis and treatment. For example, if a patient felt lethargic, a Hippocratic doctor would diagnose an overabundance of phlegm, and then prescribe citrus as a treatment.
The Contributions of Aristotle
Aristotle based his medical theory not only upon the writings of Hippocrates, but upon his own skills of deduction, which led to some key misunderstandings. The most famous of these was Aristotle’s belief that the heart, not the brain, controlled the body. Aristotle’s most important lasting contribution was the teleological understanding of disease, which held that symptoms appeared as the observable effect of some physical cause. From this basic understanding, Aristotle applied scientific practices, such as critical observation and logic, in his development of treatments. Aristotle also advocated the practice of dissection to understand physical processes.
- University of Florida College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Ancient Greek Medicine (An Outline)
- The University of Tennessee at Martin: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy -- Hippocrates
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Teleology
- National Institutes of Health: Greek Medicine -- Aristotle
- National Institutes of Health: Greek Medicine -- Olympian Healers
- National Institute of Health: Greek Medicine -- Pythagoras
- Stanford University: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy -- Alcmaeon
- University of Cagliari: History of Medicine -- The Medicine of Ancient Greece
- PBS: NOVA -- The Hippocratic Oath Today
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