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Science of Life – Early Medicine - and Humorism

Updated on July 23, 2012

Four Humors

Until the advent of the modern medical research in the 19th century, western world physicians believed the makeup and workings of the human body was based on four humors namely the black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Each humor corresponded to the four temperaments as follows:

  1. Blood from liver for 'pleasure-seeking and sociable',
  2. Yellow bile from spleen for 'ambitious and leader-like'
  3. Black bile from gal bladder for 'introverted and thoughtful'
  4. Phlegm from brain or lungs for 'relaxed and quiet'

Four Elements

To be healthy, the four humors had to be in balance. All diseases were as a result of an excess or deficit of at least one of the four humors. If you had an imbalance of one fluid, your personality and physical health would be affected. And then, there were four elements present as follows:

  1. Earth present in black bile
  2. Fire present in yellow bile
  3. Water present in phlegm
  4. Air (and earth, fire, water) present in blood if you are healthy

The type of diet and activity had varying degree to be acted upon by the human body to produce different humors. As an example, warm foods would produce yellow bile and cold foods would produce more phlegm. This meant that yellow bile caused warm diseases and phlegm caused cold diseases.

Early Medicine and Humorism - The four temperaments: 1 = cold and moist,  2 = warm and dry, 3 = warm and moist, 4 = cold and dry. Image Credit: ABenis Via Wikimedia Commons
Early Medicine and Humorism - The four temperaments: 1 = cold and moist, 2 = warm and dry, 3 = warm and moist, 4 = cold and dry. Image Credit: ABenis Via Wikimedia Commons

Four Temperaments

Humoralism is the doctrine of the four temperaments: 1 = phlegmatic, 2 = choleric, 3 = sanguine, 4 = melancholic. The most ideal temperament was as a result of a balanced mixture of the four qualities of temperaments.

The above photo shows the four temperaments:

1 = cold and moist (phlegmatic),

2 = warm and dry (choleric),

3 = warm and moist (sanguine),

4 = cold and dry (melancholic).

Blood in Transparent Glass

Get a syringe and draw some blood from a guy’s vein. Put the blood in a transparent glass and let it settle for about one hour or so. This will result in four different layers forming as follows:

  1. A dark clot at the bottom which was taken as the black bile
  2. The second layer from below will be red blood which was taken as blood
  3. The third layer from below will be whitish white blood cells fluid which was taken as phlegm
  4. The top layer is clear yellow serum which was taken as yellow bile

You then deduce how well the four layers are balanced to determine how healthy one is. Diseases will be due to excess or deficit of one of these four humors. If there is too much blood the guy is warm and moist. If there is too much phlegm the guy is cold and moist. If there is too much yellow bile the guy is warm and dry. If there is too much black bile the guy is cold and dry. If the guy has a disease, to correct the in-balance, you just needed to feed him the right diet: As an example, warm foods would produce yellow bile and cold foods would produce more phlegm. For example, if the diagnosis says the guy has excess blood, then, cut him on the skin so that he can let out some blood (bloodletting) to cure or prevent the disease. If the diagnosis says the guy needs to be hot then feed him with sufficient chilli pepper and if the diagnosis shows the guy needs to be dry, then, give him dry wines. Of course, you can now see why we still refer to spices as "hot", and some wines as "dry.

If you were to suffer from malaria, you would have fever and sweating. Fever is hot and sweating is wet. You should in this case give the patient food that will tackle hotness and wetness. These are foods that are cold and dry (the opposite of hot and wet).


The keywords here are: cold, warm, moist and dry. Physicians had to look for additional foods to tackle cold, warm, moist and dry sicknesses, and on the processes of searching for the appropriate foods they discovered herbs. With passage of time, physicians had their own herb gardens.


Humorism is therefore the theory founded on the influence which the four humors had in the formation of diseases. Humorism was abandon in 1858 after Rudolf Virchow's published the theories of cellular pathology. Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, c. 460 BC – c. 377 BC is credited for improving humorism at a time when people believed diseases were caused by superstition and gods.

Ayurvedic Medicine

In the meantime, the Asians, and in particular the Indians were by 2000 BC practicing Ayurvedic medicine. In ayurvedic medicine, the makeup and workings of the human body is made up of 3 doshas/humors. In ayurvedic, there are five elements namely earth, water, fire, air and space. An excess or deficiency of any of the three distinct doshas in a person directly influences a person’s temperament and health.

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    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Brilliantly written and you have such good talent thanks for this one voted up!

    • ngureco profile image

      ngureco 5 years ago

      Hi, Kariuki,

      Modern medicine has borrowed heavily from the work of Hippocrates and actually what Hippocrates did to the ancient medicine was just to remove the component of superstition and spirits.

      If you look at Indian ancient medicine, ayurveda, the issue of superstition and spirits has not been fully isolated and this makes ayurveda very complicated to understand.

      As for traditional healers in Africa, they have very good medicine but in as long as they continue to incorporate the issue of spirits, superstitions, and witch-crafts, then, not many people will buy the idea of their good medicine.

    • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

      Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Interesting - And the humors seem to have been well rationalised as a science. I believe they worked for the people at the time, based on their level of development and believes. Even modern medicine works sometimes because we believe! I wonder if present day 'Waganga' healers have equally rationalised reasoning in their medicine for 'jobs, love, employment and lost items.' Written in a very digestible style - shared!

    • ngureco profile image

      ngureco 5 years ago

      It is ironic.

      People in the bible used herbs as well. In Iraq, there are clay tablets that documented hundreds of medicinal medicine as early as 3000 BC.

      Like you have stated, hundreds of medicinal plants are at risk of extinction from deforestation which is a great setback to the future cures for diseases.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 5 years ago from Orange, Texas

      I think you are probably, right. Not only herbs, but I know that some fruits heal as well. I know of one instance in the Bible where Isaiah healed Hezekiah with a poultice of figs, which was placed on a boil.

      My mother used to put a poultice of bread and milk on my boils when I got them from having eczema.

      It is sad to know that mankind is slowly demolishing the rain forests, the very places where we get most of our herbs and plants from. Rather ironic, isn't it?

    • ngureco profile image

      ngureco 5 years ago

      In the 19th and 20th century, we were made to believe that herbal medicine was unscientific, primitive, unproved, ineffective and dangerous. And indeed it was very difficult to separate herbal medicine from superstition concoctions and witchcraft concoctions. But then today we know that 75% of medicine comes from plants. I believe if we can prepare herbal medicine in known concentrations and document their side effects, then; the future of medicine would be mostly herbs.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 5 years ago from Orange, Texas

      Yes, and I think they are discovering that herbs play an important role in healing.

    • ngureco profile image

      ngureco 5 years ago

      Thank you, Ann, for your comment.

      And yes, there seems not much has “changed” in medicine. If you look at today’s intravenous therapy (drip), you see physicians adding water to patient’s bodies to correct electrolyte imbalances, for blood transfusion, to deliver medications, or just for fluid replacement.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 5 years ago from Orange, Texas

      Interesting history. After reading it, I'm not sure mankind has actually progressed all that much in medicine! lol