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Ancient Greece Medicine

Updated on November 24, 2009

Greek medicine, by far the best of the ancient world, reached its peak late in the 5th century B.C. It is always associated with Hippocrates, often called the father of medicine, who lived about this time on the Greek island of Kos (or Cos) and whose teachings attracted many disciples. Hippocrates and his followers were mainly interested in treatment and in prognosis, or forecasting the course of a disease. This is in contrast to the medical teaching that was going on about the same time on the island of Cnidus There, stress was laid on classification and diagnosis of disease.

The Hippocratists left a great deal up to nature, emphasizing treatment by diet, exercise, change of climate, and, usually as a last resort, surgery. It is interesting to note that in modern medicine the healing power of nature is considered just as important, despite the wonder drugs that are available.

Hippocratic medicine was impersonal and objective and had no place for magic. The Hippocratists' approach was natural rather than supernatural, and rational rather than irrational. Many of the writings of the Hippocratists, including superb descriptions of diseases, have survived. Among these writings is a fine statement of professional ethics, or desirable professional behavior, for medical men. This statement is known as the Hippocratic oath, and its spirit is still observed and subscribed to by physicians.

On the theoretical side the Hippocratists were weak. Disease was thought to be due to an imbalance of the four humors: yellow bile, from the liver; black bile, from the spleen; phlegm, from the brain; and blood, from the heart. However, the humoral theory of disease was a praiseworthy attempt to view the sick man as a whole and is not too far removed from the modern idea that certain diseases result from imbalances of the hormones secreted by the endocrine organs. The humoral theory remained active in medicine for centuries after the time of Hippocrates.

At the time that Hippocratic medicine was at its height, another approach, called temple medicine, flourished in ancient Greece. Temple medicine involved a strongly emotional and religious type of treatment, which was offered in magnificent buildings by the priests of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. The influence of Asclepius, or Aesculapius, as the Romans later called him, extends to the present day. His staff, with a serpent twined about it, is still used as a symbol of medicine.

In the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and founded there the Greek trading port of Alexandria. A great medical tradition gradually arose in Alexandria, largely as the result of the work of two men, Herophilus and Erasistratus. Herophilus, an anatomist, lived in the late 4th and early 3rd centuries B.C. Erasistratus, a physiologist, lived in the 3rd century B.C. Both men are believed to have practiced dissection of dead human bodies. This is of importance because after the fall of the ancient world the dissection of human beings was forbidden for religious and other reasons. Such an enlightened method of getting accurate information about the human body was not used again until the 14th century.


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