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 miraculously healed by a god while dreaming. In Greek culture, however, the power of divine forces was trivialized by many philosophers and physicians. This was even reflected in Greek mythology, in which the god of medicine Asclepius was granted the power to heal the sick, yet he did so not by supernatural means but by incantations, drugs, bandages, and surgery.
The Corpus Hippocraticum contains about sixty essays, including the Hippocratic oath and a collection of aphorisms. Greek language experts are certain that the essays were written from the fifth to third century b.c.e. and hence cannot have a single author. Beginning in the second century, scholars have tried to determine which of the essays were written by Hippocrates, but these efforts have not provided a definite answer. Fewer than a dozen essays are usually claimed to be the product of Hippocrates. The essays can be categorized according to topic: the nature of and the means of curing the human body, the characteristics of a good doctor and an ethical medical practice, case histories and treatments of illness, prognostics, and environmental factors of health.
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 hurt, deliberately kill,...
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