Before the fourth and fifth centuries b.c.e., there was no written record of medical practices in the Western world. Medicine was largely the job of healers who used herbal remedies; women who had knowledge of the healing powers of certain plants were often consigned to caring for the sick. In ancient Greece, however, healing became a profession, and the mostly male, literate doctors recorded their experiences with patients and their theories of how diseases spread in numerous essays, some of which were quite polemic as the writers defended their common mode of practice against possible detractors. About seventy of these essays (only sixty still exist), all anonymous, were collected and are known as the writings of Hippocrates, a physician who practiced during the time of Plato.

The writings in the Hippocratic collection were revolutionary because they usually attributed disease to natural causes and not, as was commonly held to be true, to the influence of demons or evil forces. When the cause of a disease could not be determined or when traditional remedies were not effective, early peoples turned to religious healing. This consisted of amulets and talismans to ward off the evil, prayer, and ceremonial requests to the gods. Healing also relied on incantations and the playing of music for the sick. Another method of treatment was dream healing, in which the cure was revealed to the patient in a dream or the patient was...

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The Art of Medicine and Ethics

Some of the Hippocratic writings consist of essays that attempt to establish a theory of medicine as it pertains to the practice of healing, the composition of the human body, and the causes of disease. Peri archais itriks (Ancient Medicine, 1849) explains the origin of medicine as a means to cure the sick. It discusses diet, body fluids, and the effects of applying heat and cold to the patient. Peri techns (The Art of Medicine, 1923) is less concerned with practice and cynically notes the patient’s desire for the relief of distressing symptoms rather than true health and the patient’s tendency to ignore the doctor’s orders. It also points out the limitations of medicine, which cannot treat all known disorders and therefore must treat only curable ones. Peri diaits (Regimen, 1931) delves into the nature of the human body, pointing out sexual differences, reproduction, embryology, and the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Other essays of this type discuss the nature of the universe, the soul, and the composition of living things.

The most famous Hippocratic work, Orkos (The Oath, 1849), deals with ethics. The first part of the oath highlights the important, almost sacred, nature of medical training, the value of the medical teacher, and the need to teach the art to those bound by the oath. The second part states that a physician under the oath should not...

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An Observation-Based Medicine

Case histories appear in Epidemin (The History of Epidemics, 1780). The author typically gives the name of the patient if known, along with the sex and age. The condition of the patient during the first visit is recorded, followed by a description of symptoms as well as the day they each first occurred. The case history ends with either the death or the recovery of the patient. If the patient recovers, the cause of the relief is then explained, usually by a release of body fluids. Peri diaits oxen (Regimen in Acute Diseases, 1849) provides the ancient physician with advice concerning diet, exercise, bloodletting, purgation, and bathing for the seriously ill patient. Peri nousn (Diseases, 1988), Peri pathn (Affections, 1988), and Peri tn entos pathn (Internal Affections, 1988) continue to offer advice for medical disorders such as lung inflammation, ulcers of the head, water on the brain, fever, colic, nasal polyps, dysentery, diarrhea, arthritis, tumors, hepatitis, and jaundice. Notably, many times the symptoms of the disease are described, but no steps for treatment are given. Other articles discuss treatment of wounds to the head, broken bones, dislocated joints, ulcers, fistulae, hemorrhoids, and epilepsy. The last is noteworthy to modern scholars because it denies any divine nature to the disease and provides a careful description of a disorder that is not as physically observable as, for instance, a wound.


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Impact on Medical Ethics

Hippocratic writings founded Western medicine. Since the time of Hippocrates, advances in medicine have depended on clinical observation, treatment of specific illnesses, and prescribed regimen. The name of Hippocrates and any writings associated with him quickly became sacrosanct. In the years 200 b.c.e. to 100 c.e., the works were acknowledged as fine examples of empirical medical practice, and Diocles, a significant Greek physician, collected the works to assist him in his practice.

The Roman physician Galen based his theory of medicine on Hippocrates, and Galen’s works remained influential for centuries afterward. He criticized those physicians who lost sight of Hippocratic methods of medicine; in particular, he complains of his contemporaries Asclepiades and Erasistratus for not observing the true effects of disease and for rejecting the theory of humors as espoused in Hippocratic writings.

During the medieval period in Europe, Greek medical manuscripts were preserved. A few of the Hippocratic works remained as medical textbooks until the nineteenth century. The theory of humors remained in the popular culture until the seventeenth century, as personalities were classified as one of four types. Sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, or melancholic people existed according to which of the four humors, blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), or melancholy (black bile), dominated their...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Amundsen, Darrel. Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. A scholarly yet accessible history of ethical issues in medicine in the ancient and medieval worlds, including the ethics of the Hippocratic oath. Comprehensive footnotes and index.

Coulter, Harris L. Divided Legacy: A History of the Schism in Medical Thought. Vol. 1 in The Patterns Emerge: Hippocrates to Paracelsus. Washington, D.C.: Wehawken, 1975. The subtitle of the first volume refers to two patterns of thought, rational and empirical, dominating medical history. The author places Hippocrates in the empirical tradition. Provides an extensive bibliography and index. Lists quotations from original writings.

Edelstein, Ludwig. The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1943. This monograph argues that the Hippocratic oath represented the opinion of a small segment of Greek medical society, was based on Pythagorean principles, and served as a voluntary oath of conscience between teacher and student.

Heidel, William Arthur. Hippocratic Medicine: Its Spirit and Method. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941. Heidel discusses the close...

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