Hippocrates was born on the island of Kos, most probably in Astypalaia, the ancient capital of the island near Kefalos, around 460 BC, although some believe he was born before, even up to 475 BC.
He was born into a family of physicians, the Asklepiades, who were the hereditary physician-priests of the Asklepieion and considered descendants of the god of medicine, Asclepius. The island of Kos itself had a strong medical tradition, with its already famous Asklepieion and its medical school. His father was Heraclides and his mother, Fenareti, who was considered a descendant of the mythical hero Heracles. Hippocrates had two sons, Thessalos and Drakon, who, following family tradition, also became famous physicians, like his son-in-law Polyvos.
Hippocrates was taught medicine by his grandfather and father, in a propitious environment, as he studied within the Asklepieion itslef, which provided him with numerous clinical data for research and practice. Hippocrates also studied philosophy and rhetoric, as was the custom those days.
When Hippocrates became an adult and during a decade he visited various places for research purposes, increasing his knowledge and experience. We don’t know with certainty which places he visited but most historians name Skythia, Delos, Egypt, Libya, Thasos, Thrace, Propontis, Ellispon, Thessaly, Athens and Smyrna.
Hippocratic medicine and the Medical School of Kos
Medecine before Hippocrates
In Ancient Greece, although the practice of medicine remained religious, empirical medicine developed itself, based on experience and logic, marginalising older superstitious methods. A big breakthrough for the evolution of medicine came from the Pre-Socratic philosophers who claimed that the laws of nature could be applied to men. Those who seem to have influenced Hippocrates more, in this sense, are Heraklitus, Empedocles, Alkmaion and the Pythagorians. The most important medical schools at that time were those of Cyrene, Kroton and Knidos.
Hippocrates’ innovative approach
When Hippocrates took over the Medical School of Kos, he expanded the teaching, that was confined until then to the sons of physicians-priests, to all young people who had the necessary academic qualifications. A contract stating the student’s obligations towards the teacher and medecine in general was thus included in the Hippocratic Oath. Amongst his most renowned students were Polyvos, Dexippos, Protagoras the Elder and Synnessis the Cypriot.
He separated scientific truth from superstition that was promoted by physicians-priests and stated that sickness is not god’s punishment. He showed that all illnesses have a human or natural cause and can be studied. He highlighted the importance and influence of the natural environment on corporal and inner health. He also conceptualised the existence of a vital force within the human body, named “Physis”, that allows people to live and constitutes the most important therapeutic factor.
Hippocrates considered each human being as having unique personality and psychosomatic characteristics. He not only examined the organ that was sick but the whole body. He gave attention not only to the illness but also to the patient. He attached a lot of importance to prognosis and to the development of the illness itself in relation with the rest of the body. A crucial aspect of Hippocrates’ medicine was the diet he imposed on his patients, tailored to their needs, composition, age, habits and personality.
The Medical School of Kos
The Medical Schools of Kos and Knidos, situated on the coast of Asia Minor just to the South of Kos, were great rivals at the time of Hippocrates. The physicians at Knidos analysed in great depth the clinical data of each illness, recording in detail the condition of the organs and the symptoms, and limited therapy to the organs or parts of the body that were ailing. Hippocrates, on the other hand, believed that a physician had to examine the overall condition of the patient in order to apply effective treatment. He studied the general symptoms of each illness and classified them into greater categories. Eventually, the Medical School of Kos prevailed and remained famous until the hellenistic period. When Hippocrates left Kos, he put his son in law Polyvos in charge of the Medical School.
Hippocrates’ fame and renown spread to all the ancient world and he was summoned to a lot of places to cure severe illnesses. Amongst others, it seems he was invited to the court of the King of Macedonia, Perdikkas, who suffered from tuberculosis. He also stayed in the city of Abdera, in Thrace, where he cured a lot of patients and befriended the famous philosopher Democritus. It is also said that Hippocrates was summoned by the Persian king Artaxerxes to cure his army from the plague, but he refused due to the animosity that existed at that time between Persians and Greeks. Hippocrates also visited Delphi where his family of Asklipiades enjoyed special privileges in the temple of Apollo. He also helped the inhabitants of Thermopylae and Fokida overcome the plague. It seems that he also lived in Delos for a while. He also went to Athens where he cured his inhabitants from the plague, while his sons were sent to other places of Northern Greece to deal with the disease.
Hippocrates’ last years in Thessaly
The place Hippocrates visited and lived the most was Thessaly, a region strongly linked to Kos religiously and ethnically. He lived and exercised medecine in Melivoia and Larisa. At an older age, Hippocrates left Kos once more and moved to Thessaly where he stayed until his death, which must have occured between 370 and 358 BC. He was buried close to Larisa, according to tradition.