Hippocrates is often called the “father of medicine”, as he founded what was at the time a truly novel practice through the introduction of groundbreaking methodology and a code of ethics. He became famous from the start of his career and throughout nearly twenty five centuries his influence was to medical thinking what Aristotle’s was to philosophy.
Hippocrates was born on the island of Kos around 460 BC. After having learnt medicine by his father Heraclides, physician-priest of the Asklepieion, he later studied at the Knidian school of medicine, but refused to adopt their theories.
He was renown for his pragmatic approach to medicine. He separated the discipline of medicine from religion, and relied on clinical signs and logical conclusions to identify and treat sickness.
“Men believe only that it is a divine disease because of their ignorance and amazement.” (The Sacred Disease).
He founded the Hippocratic school of medicine (around 430 B.C.) and established medicine as a distinct discipline, thereby creating the medical profession. Many documents, including the Hippocratic Oath and a collection of around 60 works in Greek referred to since ancient times as the Hippocratic Corpus are attributed to Hippocrates and his disciples. The contents are so varied that historians believe that they constitute the remains of a collection of books from a library in Kos or Alexandria. In truth, only a fraction of the Hippocratic works have survived as witnessed by references in existing treatises while many only exist in their translation in Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic or Latin.
Two distinct schools of Medicine actually opposed each other in those times. While the Hippocratic school adopted more of a generalist approach focusing mainly on the patient as a coherent integrated whole, the Knidian school concentrated on specific areas and organs of the body, seeking to identify and classify the different kinds of disease. The Hippocratic school was in practice more efficient with its general diagnosis and its passive treatments thereby gaining the upper hand in the debate between the two sides.
Hippocrates was influenced by the Pythagorean theory whereby Nature is a combination of four elements (water, earth, wind and fire) and by applying this concept to medicine he conceived the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile). Health is a state due to the harmonious coexistence of the four humors while any disharmony or imbalance would be the cause of a disease.
Hippocrates was a strong proponent of strengthening one’s body in order to bolster its resistance levels. He also insisted on strict dietary measures in dealing with illness. By establishing this holistic approach he was led to concentrate on the patient rather than the disease.
Herbs and healing plants were studied systematically (around 380 can be found in the Hippocratic Corpus including thyme, sage, mint, fennel, garlic…) and were prescribed to reestablish the equilibrium between the humors.
Hippocrates acknowledged the need for professionalism and discipline in the exercise of the medical profession. He encouraged the recording of medicinal methods and findings (what we now call “clinical observations”) in a clear and objective manner, in order to aid fellow physicians in their diagnosis and their forecast of the evolution of the disease. He took regular note of many symptoms including complexion, pulse, fever, pains, movement and excretions. A number of medical conditions were first described by Hippocrates and his disciples, such as the clubbing of the fingers (often referred to as “Hippocratic fingers”) as well as a number of lung diseases and ailments of the rectum.
Hippocrates taught and practiced medicine throughout his life, traveled to many places, and exchanged ideas with other schools of thought. He reputedly lectured his students under the plane tree which is currently in Lotzia square in Kos Town. He died at a ripe old age in the town of Larissa in Thessaly around 370 B.C.
Even though his work in the field of medicine has in some respects become obsolete, his contribution to scientific progress has been monumental.