- Education and Science
460 - 377 BC
A physician of ancient Greece, Hippocrates is often referred to as 'the father of medicine'. There are only a few contemporary accounts of his life and most extant knowledge is based on writings from a later era. From the information available, it is known that Hippocrates was born on the island of Cos in the Aegean Sea in about 460 BC.
He traveled through Greece and Asia Minor, practicing and teaching his principles of medicine, and developed a science very widely different from the healing art of the Temple of Cos. Hippocrates was instrumental in establishing medicine as a study distinct from that of religion and advocated that disease was due to natural rather than spiritual causes.
His principles of medical science formed the basis for modern medical theory developed in the 1800's. His famous oath, the Hippocratic oath, is still used today. Usually, graduating medical students take an oath modeled after the oath of Hippocrates. It defines the relationship of doctor to patient and affirms a doctor's duty to humanity.
He followed high ethical codes in his practice of medicine and these were later formalized in the Hippocratic Oath. It is believed that students took the oath on entry to the medical school of Cos which was headed by Hippocrates. Students were required to recite: "I will prescribe treatment to the best of my ability and judgment for the good of the sick and never for harmful or illicit purpose". A Hippocratic oath is still required to be recited by medical students today.
Hippocrates established medical theory on rational, scientific principles. He believed that diseases had only natural causes, not supernatural ones. Furthermore, Hippocrates regarded the human body as a whole organism. He treated patients in what we would call a holistic manner - with proper diet, fresh air, and attention to habits and living conditions.
Some of the medical techniques Hippocrates used were quite advanced for his time. For instance, he performed surgery, such as boring holes into the skull to relieve pressure from a tumor. He also used tar as a crude antiseptic for wounds.
About 60 medical treatises have come down to us from Hippocrates. In ancient times, these were gathered in a famous collection and kept at the great library of Alexandria, Egypt. Some of the works were almost certainly written by others, perhaps pupils of Hippocrates. But the number actually written by Hippocrates himself is unknown.
Aristotle mentions him once only, but the Hippocratic Collection of books speaks for itself. Theses works were in use in the Alexandrian Medical School 300 BC. And as even then the master was highly venerated and all laudable contributions were attributed to him, so from the very beginning the man was merged in his work. It was Hippocrates who separated medicine from philosophy, and made his observations without allowing himself to be biased by the notions concerning the functions of the human body that were current at the time.
His aphorisms begin with "Art is long and life is short", and though he was sometimes very wrong, he was never superstitious. In surgery he was up-to-date, instructing "the nails of the operator neither to exceed nor come short of the finger-tip: and urging "practice (to attain) ability, grace, speed, painlessness..."
His students were forced to take an oath of secrecy concerning their patients cases, a practice which is still followed in many medical faculties.
Hippocrates wrote a collection of 70 works, known as Corpus Hippocraticum, which rejected the old superstitions of medicine and described a doctor as a careful observer and examiner who used method to provide a diagnosis. With his professional skill and accurate descriptions, Hippocrates was a significant early diagnostician. He was also a skilled surgeon. His surgery was limited but included the treatment of fractures, for which he was the first to use traction.
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The New International Illustrated Encyclopaedia, Volume 3, 1954. Page 446.