Father of Medicine
Medical historians generally look to Hippocrates as the founder of medicine as a rational science. It was Hippocrates who finally freed medicine fromthe shackles of magic, superstition, and the supernatural.
Hippocrates collected data and conducted experiments to show that disease was a natural process; that the signs and symptoms of a disease were caused by the natural reactions of the body to the disease process; and that the chief role of the physician was to aid the natural resistance of the body to overcome the metabolic imbalance and restore health and harmony to the organism.
Hippocrates was born on the island of Cos, off the southwest coast of Asia Minor, or present-day Turkey, around 460 B.C. His father was a physician-priest in the Asclepion at Cos, and his family could trace its lineage back to the legendary Asclepius. Hippocrates lived a very long life and died at a ripe old age in the town of Larissa in Thessaly.
The Hippocratic Revolution
When Hippocrates began to practicemedicine, the established school of medicine was the Cnidian school. But this school's approach to medicine had several serious flaws, whichwere already becoming apparent and starting to cause a general dissatisfaction with the art of medicine.
The Cnidian school considered the body to be merely a collection of isolated parts, and saw diseases manifesting in a particular organ or body part as affecting that part only, which alone was treated. Their system of diagnosis was also faulty, relying exclusively on the subjective symptoms related by the patient, while totally ignoring the objective signs of the disease.
Hippocrates radically disagreed with the Cnidian school, countering that the human body functioned as one unified organism, or physis, and must be treated, in health and disease, as one coherent, integrated whole. In diagnosis, not only the patient's subjective symptoms, but the objective signs of the disease must also be considered to arrive at an accurate assessment of what was going on.
As his main unifying theory for the holistic understanding of the human organism and how it functions in health and disease, Hippocrates used the concept of the Four Humors. Although the groundwork of humoral physiology and pathology had already been laid by his predecessors, Hippocrates finally brought the thory of the Four Humors into its classical form.
Health is a harmonious balance of the Four Humors. Disease results from their disharmony and imbalance. The physician's job is to restore health by correcting the imbalance and restoring harmony to the humors. To quote Hippocrates:
"The body of man has in itself blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; these make up the nature of the body, and through these he feels pain or enjoys health. Now, he enjoys the most perfect health when these elements are duly proportioned to one another in respect to compounding, power and bulk, and when they are perfectly mingled. Pain is felt when one of these elements is in defect or excess, or is isolated in the body without being compounded with all the others."
- The Nature of Man
Hippocrates took his band of renegade physicians with him to the island of Cos. There, they set about to revolutionize the art of medicine and put its theory and practice on a truer, sounder footing.
Physiology and pathology in Hippocratic medicine was based on the Four Humors. A united confluence and sympathy between all four humors working together was necessary for good health. Pneuma - the Breath or Vital Force, and the Innate Heat, which were suffused into the blood from the lungs via the heart, gave the blood the power to sustain life.
Hippocrates saw pepsis, or an orderly, balanced, harmonious digestion and metabolism of the Four Humors as being essential to all good health. In disorders of pepsis Hippocrates saw the origin of most disease.
Hippocrates' anatomical knowledge was rather scant, but this is compensated for by his profound insights into human physiology and the soundness of his reasoning. But even so, his surgical techniques for dislocations of the hip and jaw were unsurpassed until the nineteenth century.
In therapeutics, Hippocrates saw the physician as the servant and facilitator of Nature. All medical treatment was aimed at enabling the natural resistance of the organism to prevail and overcome the disease, to bring about recovery.
In the treatments he prescribed, Hippocrates was very sensible, pragmatic and flexible in his approach, favoring conservatism and moderation over radical or extreme measures. Bloodletting, which was much abused at other times in medicine's history, was used only rarely by Hippocrates, and even then, only applied conservatively.
Hippocrates placed great emphasis on strengthening and building up the body's inherent resistance to disease. For this, he prescribed diet, gymnastics, exercise, massage, hydrotherapy and sea bathing.
Hippocrates was a great believer in dietary measures in the treatment of disease. He prescribed a very slender, light diet during the crisis stage of an acute illness, and a liquid diet during the treatment of fevers and wounds.
Hippocratic medicine was constitutionally based, so its approach to diagnosis and treatment was quite flexible. As a holistic healing system, Hippocratic medicine treated the patient, and not just the disease.
Hippocrates was the first physician to systematically classify diseases based on points of similarity and contrast between them. He virtually originated the disciplines of etiology and pathology. By systematically classifying diseases, Hippocrates placed their diagnosis and treatment on a sounder footing.
The Hippocratic Corpus
The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of over 60 works. Although all of them are attributed to Hippocrates, the Corpus is of a heterogenous character, and many, if not most, of its works may actually have been written by his students.
Still, we can be fairly certain that Hippocrates actually did author many books in the Corpus, including many original, groundbreaking works. These include:
Airs, Waters and Places - the first major work on medical meteorology, climatology, geography and anthropology.
Aphorisms - a collection of wise, pithy sayings giving advice on practical matters of diet, prognosis and therapeutics.
Ancient Medicine - a defense of the empirical study of medicine against one biased by preliminary axioms and assumptions. Also deals with the Four Humors.
The Legacy of Hippocrates
Hippocrates was the personification of the ideal physician - wise, caring, compassionate and honest. He is most remembered today for his famous Oath, which set high ethical standards for the practice of medicine. His exemplary life has been a constant and enduring source of inspiration for doctors and healers down through the ages.
On The Hippocratic Revolution:
The Traditional Healer's Handbook by Hakim G. M. Chishti
Copyright 1988 by Healing Arts Press - Rochester, Vermont
pp. 11 - 12
On Hippocratic Medicine and The Hippocratic Corpus:
Traditional Greco-Arabic and Modern Western Medicine: Conflict or Symbiosis?
by Hakim Mohammed Said Copyright 1975 by Hamdard Academy - Karachi, Pakistan
pp. 17 - 23