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- The old “medicine” once consisted of offerings and divine petitions. Sickness was a supernatural sickness; Health was a gift.
- Hippocrates invented medical science, and his theory of juices and holistic health dominated Western medical thought for more than two thousand years.
- Today medicine is much more disease-centered, and perhaps something has been lost from the Hippocratic doctor-patient relationship.
You feel sick – so sick that you can barely walk – and therefore go to a specialist. They wait outside, feverish and exhausted, hoping that they can help. Your name will be called. You start to explain your symptoms but are interrupted before you can start.
“Let me stop you there,” he says, “it’s obvious what happened. You have been cursed by the god Hermes. You have to sacrifice two young goats every day and pray to him. I hope he has pity on you. CONTINUE.” ! “
You go, still sick.
The doctor will see you now
This was the standard medical model of antiquity. Priests and prayer cured diseases. That is, until Hippocrates reinvented all practice and defined medicine as a profession.
Everything we know about Hippocrates comes from a series of writings from the Library of Alexandria dating from around 250 BC. It is a mixture of accumulated knowledge, case notes and philosophy composed by several authors over many years. But Hippocrates is the master and the name that connects everything.
Hippocrates argued that disease and sickness can be understood through rational inquiry and have natural explanations (as opposed to gods or the supernatural). Humans were just as much a part of nature as chickens or cows and could be treated or cured in similar ways.
Since the Greeks had strict rules against dissecting or cutting a corpse, Hippocrates and the early doctors knew very little about human physiology. Most of the anatomical knowledge must have come from the gruesome chaos of the battlefield – people who (literally) carried their arms or came back with gaping stab wounds in their stomachs. The only other way was to draw parallels with wildlife. For example, the Hippocratics believed that human pregnancy was similar to how a hen fed her eggs.
Humans were just as much a part of nature as chickens or cows and could be treated or cured in similar ways.
Without microscopes or medical experiments, Greek doctors were much more limited and viewed the body holistically. Nowadays medicine is pretty much disease centered as it focuses on the pathology like dysfunctional organs or microbial infections. For Hippocrates, illness was a matter of the whole body – only caused when the natural equilibrium and equilibrium of the body were disturbed.
A sense of humor
The juices blood (red) and mucus (blue) are depicted in this document in the Raeapteek pharmacy in Tallinn, Estonia Credit: Alex Berezow
Hippocrates believed that the body is made up of different fluids called juices and that different organs are responsible for their formation and regulation.
There were four juices: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. These all existed in the body, and when present in moderation or in balance with the other bodily fluids, a person was considered healthy. (It should be noted that black bile has often been viewed as uniformly negative). Disease was thought to develop when one or more of the humors in the body was overproduced or located in the wrong part of the body. So if you have too much phlegm you will get a cough. Too much blood and you will vomit. Too much black bile and you would get depressed.
While we may find this ridiculous, you can see why the hippocrats thought so. Even today we often confuse symptoms with causes, and it is perfectly logical that the body secretes mucus when a cold occurs, and that this must be the cause of the disease. Or how a nosebleed is caused by excessive blood. Or how diarrhea looks like yellow bile.
Of course, this sometimes meant that Hippocratic medicine offered some absurd treatments. For example, epilepsy was thought to be caused by mucus blocking the airways – the cramps were an attempt to open them – so warm, dry climates were recommended. A regular prescription was for a patient to drink gladiator’s blood for potency. If you have had a headache, it has been suggested that you hold an electric eel to your head to force out the unwanted body fluids.
Has your doctor ever sniffed your chair?
It’s hard to underestimate how sick or frail the people of ancient Greece would have been. Thanks to modern medicine and public health, we are very rarely sick, and when we are, drugs are usually effective and easy to come by. However, ancient times were a world of fevers, food poisoning, water-borne infections, animal bites, and more frequent, brutal warfare (and the resulting infections). To be healthy is a matter of course today. It was sick then.
It is not unfair to say that Hippocrates invented both prognosis and diagnosis. For the first time, a doctor might say, “I know what went wrong and I can tell you what’s next.”
As such, an empirically thinking (albeit misguided) class of doctors like the Hippocratics would have had great success for the patient and the doctor alike. Seeing illness as an imbalance of the entire body, the hippocrats took a great interest in their patients. They were often at the bedside and their examinations were incredibly thorough. For example, they often tried urine or ear wax to see if it was okay. They ate leg hair and sniffed patients’ chairs. It is not unfair to say that Hippocrates invented both prognosis and diagnosis. For the first time, a doctor might say, “I know what went wrong and I can tell you what’s next.”
These doctors did not recommend any drastic or intense interventions such as surgery (not least because anything other than an amputation would be fatal anyway). They prescribed lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, hot baths, and sex (which was especially important for older patients). You would keep asking how the patient is doing. They checked to see if they were taking their medication.
Although practically none of the hippocrats’ drugs were even remotely correct, their bedside posture was very different from that of modern doctors: “What’s wrong with you? Right, here are your drugs. Good luck. For so long.” Hippocratic medicine used all the tricks necessary to restore harmony to the whole body. The doctor-patient relationship was just that – a relationship, not a transaction.
The legacy of Hippocrates
Photo credit: Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson via Wikipedia / Public Domain
Hippocrates gave us two great presents. At first he made medicine an independent scientific discipline. Second, he showed us the importance of paying attention to the patient as a whole and responding to the entirety of his illness, including his psychological state. Doctors around the world still have to swear by the “Hippocratic Oath”, which obliges doctors, among other things, “to remember that I am not treating a fever chart, a cancer, but a sick person whose illness can affect the disease”. Family and economic stability. “
Voltaire once said: “The art of medicine is to amuse the patient while nature cures the disease.” This was undoubtedly true of Hippocrates. Sure, many of his patients recovered, but most of the time it was probably less because of his medical prowess than because his patients enjoyed a month-long spa with great food and lots of sleep.
Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy at Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.
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