Hippocrates and the Beginnings of Western Medicine

 Modern medicine is based on a systematic period of observation owed to Hippocrates. Today this is called a clinical observation and it is what earned Hippocrates the title ‘Father of Medicine’. The school Asclepieion on Cos, Cos being the place of his birth in 460 BC (died in 377BC), established by Hippocrates designates that the great physician and the school pursued a holistic concept which combined observation with drug therapy and particular diets accompanied by physical and mental exercise. 

In his book ‘In the Dark Places of Wisdom’, Peter Kingsley, PhD informs the reader that the ancient people, before the first Greek doctors, treated various illnesses by placing the patient to rest in temples (especially those of Apollo-God of music and healing).  They would lie in a still coma-like state, much like people today after a serious operation, so that the body could heal itself.  Of course, in those days people believed that it was the divine touch of a Godly spirit that brought about the healing process.

That is why before Hippocrates and other ancient Greek doctors, the priest was also a healer.  Hippocrates and his followers, though, were firm in their belief that a doctor’s practice must be separate from that of a priest’s.

Hippocrates and other doctors of his time observed their patients and recorded their progress including advice to the doctor on what to do.  These were called the Hippocratic Collection and although Hippocrates himself wrote but a few, it was his formulating the first standards and ethical rules, still valid today, which has given him his fame and popularity.

Due to these observations, Hippocrates distinguished that the differences in the severity of the disease symptoms made it so that some individuals coped differently with their illnesses than others. And since individuals reacted to and coped in a different way with the same disease, the results would vary. He realized that the patient’s thoughts and feelings, generally his attitude, contributed to the progress and outcome of the disease.

These observations have served doctors around the world as a source of study. Such recorded observations of advice were ‘Forecasting Diseases’, ‘On Epidemics’ or ‘the Sacred Disease’. In the recordings ‘On Epidemics’, the doctors were advised to do a day to day observation of the patient and note specific symptoms.  Thus, they would have a history of an illness and could forecast its later progress. Ancient priests believed that epilepsy was a disease given by the Gods, whereas the doctors believed that it was from a natural cause like other diseases. It is, therefore, stated in ‘the Sacred disease’:

“Men believe only that it is a divine disease because of their ignorance and amazement.”   (From ‘The Sacred Disease’)

The Hippocratic Collection included, besides diseases, medical topics such as obstetrics, gynecology, pediatrics, nutrition, head wounds and surgery. The Hippocratic Oath is not clear who wrote it or first used it, but it is estimated to have been written in the 4th century BCE and seems to have been influenced more by the followers of Pythagoras.  It has been rewritten over time so that it may accommodate the values of different cultures influenced by Greek medicine.

“I will use treatments for the benefit of the ill in accordance with my ability and my judgment, but from what is to their harm and injustice I will keep them” -Hippocratic Oath

All too often, modern man neglects the trials and errors of the past that have led to what is modern medicine today. All too often, modern man neglects to appreciate the antibiotics available to him, the ability to heal a broken bone with more comfort than in the past, the fact that the heart may be operated on and saved and that destroyed organs may be replaced through organ transplants. Today patients and doctors alike should take another look at the teachings of the past, especially the Hippocratic Oath which vows the healing of the ill with only the best interest of that person at heart.

The primary guiding steps and ethics set forth by Hippocrates and his school denote the future conclusive responsibilities of the medical profession and request that modern man demonstrate more compassion for the medical field as well as the patients served.