Ancient Greek Medicine: Who Was Hippocrates and What Was the Hippocratic Oath?


Ancient medicine from ancient Greece borrowed many ideas from ancient Egypt, with many people seeking supernatural explanations for their ailments, such as curses and judgment from the gods. If someone got sick, they would usually end up in a asclepeion – a temple dedicated to the god of medicine, Asclepius. The patient would sleep there and hoped to receive a visit from Asclepius during the night, who would tell him of his healing.

Upon awakening the next day, the patient reported his dreams to the priests, who would prescribe treatment – usually based on prayer, exercise, bathing, and herbal remedies. If they were healed, grateful devotees would leave a model of their affected body part behind in the temple as a thank-offering. However, the desire to seek more pragmatic explanations for people’s ills has grown over time.

Hippocrates (c460-c375 BC), who helped advance the theory of the four humours, and was one of the first physicians to accurately describe conditions such as epilepsy. While some people believed the disorder was the result of demonic possession, the Kos-born doctor instead determined that the cause was inside the human brain.

Thanks to the work of Hippocrates and his followers over the generations, distinctions also began to be made between acute (short and sudden) and chronic (long lasting) illnesses, while emphasizing the importance of observation. .

Doctors would also regularly check their patient’s symptoms, as well as their pulse, temperature and excretions. In addition, the Hippocratic school pioneered important new techniques: a collection of writings attributed to the Doctor’s disciples (known as the Hippocratic Corpus) presents the first known reference to an endoscopy using a rectal speculum.

What was the theory of the four humors?

Humor was a common concept in ancient Greece. Although the theory is believed to have originated much earlier, Hippocrates is often credited with refining and popularizing it.

The basic belief was that the human body was made up of four fluids – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm – and that these corresponded to the four elements of earth, fire, wind, and water. water. If any of these things got out of balance, you could get sick.

Moods were also believed to be related to temperature and weather. Blood was associated with humidity and heat; if you suffered from redness, sweating and swelling, it was said that you had too much blood in your body.

To solve the problem, doctors practiced bloodletting, performed by cutting the skin or using leeches. Fainting was generally considered a sign that the treatment was working, but death could occur if too much blood was drained.

The theory of the four humors did not die out with the ancient Greeks. In fact, humor stuck in Western medicine until the 19th century, when the germ theory (the idea that pathogens cause disease) and other medical discoveries took hold.

As medicine was still a developing field, physicians were often viewed with suspicion. Hippocrates, however, developed a code of ethics that helped make medicine a respected profession and ensured that physicians were seen as important members of society.

The so-called “Hippocratic Oath” set out the basic rules of conduct at a doctor’s bedside, as well as a text on the importance of honesty, compassion, confidentiality, cleanliness. and careful recording of a patient’s symptoms (which could then be used by other physicians).

Taking the oath

Indeed, more than 2,300 years after Hippocrates’ death, much of the oath still resonates today:

I swear by Apollo the doctor, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that according to my ability and judgment, I will keep this oath and this contract… I will use these diets which benefit my patients according to my greatest capacity and my judgment, and I will not do them any harm or injustice … In all the homes where I will go, I will enter there for the good of the sick, avoiding any voluntary act of impropriety or corruption, including the seduction of women or men, whether free or slaves.

Everything I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether related to my professional practice or not, that I must not talk about outside, I will keep it a secret, considering that all these things are private. As long as I maintain this Oath faithfully and without corruption, may it be granted to me to participate fully in the life and practice of my art, earning the respect of all men forever.

However, if I break this oath and violate it, the opposite is my fate.

This marble relief from the 5th century BC. AD shows a Greek doctor treating a woman (Photo by DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / De Agostini via Getty Images)

While Hippocrates is perhaps the most famous of ancient Greek physicians, he was certainly not the only physician to have had a significant impact on medical thought.

Herophilus (c330-c280 BC), for example, is said to have been one of the first to perform human dissections at a time when the ban on the practice (for religious reasons) was temporarily lifted in Alexandria. Through his careful studies of the body, Herophilus deduced that the veins carried only blood (it was previously thought that they also carried a mixture of water and air) and devised a method to measure the pulse.

  • Read more: Famous Greeks – 14 Influential Figures of Ancient Greece

A fertile imagination

Despite their pioneering ideas, the ancient Greeks still had unusual beliefs regarding conditions such as pregnancy, including the idea that the sex of a baby could be determined by the complexion of the mother – the Appearance of freckles was considered a sign that she was carrying a girl, while a fair complexion indicated that a boy was due instead.

If a couple wanted to increase the likelihood of having a boy, the man could tie up his left testicle before sex; according to contemporary thought, the right testicle was considered “superior” and would therefore conceive a stronger (and more desirable) male heir.

Another medical technique used by the ancient Greeks was trepanation – making a hole in the skull. While earlier civilizations may have adopted the procedure to allow evil spirits to escape, Greek physicians may have other ideas as to the benefits of the procedure. According to some historians, trepanation could have been used as a means of treating fractures of the head, on the grounds that recovery was more likely if pieces of dead bone could be removed before the infection set in.

Regardless of how strange some of their methods are today, the work of ancient Greek physicians had an undeniable impact on the Western world. The teachings of ancient Greece were adopted by ancient Rome and – as the Roman Empire expanded – these ideas spread further. Together, they will influence medicine for many centuries to come.

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This article first appeared in BBC story revealed essential guide to ancient Greece

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