The Founder of Western Medicine
By Gabriel Blanchard
What we call modern medical science stretches far further back than we may think.
Like Homer or the composer of the Bhagavad Gītā, Hippocrates is one of the more obscure figures on our author bank. He was a younger contemporary of Socrates, and his work was known in Athens in Plato’s time; he traveled around the eastern Ægean (what today forms the western coast of Turkey and the easternmost islands of Greece) practicing and teaching medicine; he probably died in Thessaly (central Greece), and by all reports, at a ripe old age. Beyond that, we do not know a great deal for certain about his life, and not all of the texts in the “Hippocratic corpus” are thought to be genuinely his by modern scholars.
However, their provenance notwithstanding, that corpus is among the most influential collections of texts in the canon, setting the standard for medical science for considerably more than a thousand years, and instituting principles of medical ethics that are observed to this day. Though the Hippocratic Oath is seldom used in its primitive form today—partly because few modern physicians believe in “Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia, Panacæa, and all the gods and goddesses” of the ancient Greeks—it remains the basis of many modern medical oaths, imposing duties such as abstaining from deliberate harm, doctor-patient confidentiality, and refusal to assist in suicide.
Though not the first to formulate it, Hippocrates was one of the most important expounders of the “four humors” theory of health, which remained standard right down into the early Modern period. The humors were thought to be the forms taken by the four classical elements—fire, air, earth, and water—inside the human body: fire equated with blood, air with yellow bile, earth with black bile, and water with phlegm. Keeping these four fluids, or “humors,” in balance was believed to be the key to good health; hence the widespread practice of bloodletting to relieve fevers, the idea being that it released some of the fiery blood whose excess was causing the heat. This terrible misunderstanding injured and probably indirectly killed thousands, perhaps millions, of patients over history, before fevers came to be better understood.
However, despite their flaws in medical theory, Hippocrates and his successors were surprisingly advanced in technical skill. Hippocrates set great store by careful observation (and, unlike many earlier physicians, did not turn to magical explanations for any illnesses, not even epilepsy, then believed to be a form of possession); it may have been this which moved him to prefer exercise and a healthy, regulated diet to bloodletting. It certainly moved him to emphasize taking detailed notes on every patient and preserving them for further study, both by himself and by other doctors, in order to advance the craft. Wine (as a primitive antiseptic) and clean water were used to wash and bandage wounds. Even chest surgery to drain abscesses, and the cauterizing and excision of hemorrhoids, were familiar to Hippocrates, and his dietary guidelines allowed for a crude treatment of some forms of diabetes, then a life-threatening illness. It is curious to reflect for a moment that modern medicine may be thanks not only to the intellectual foundations he laid, but to the very lives he saved, thousands of years ago.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this author profile of Plutarch, this one of Martin Luther, this discussion of film studies, or this “Great Conversation” essay on the concept of logic. And check out our podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate sits down with leading intellectuals to discuss education, policy, and culture.
Page image of an early 5th-century BCE red-figure vase depicting a doctor, currently in the Louvre, Paris (source).