I have long been intrigued by how ancient healers or physicians regarded the causes of illness and their cure, considering their lack of knowledge of the internal structure and workings of the human body, as well as not having the instruments to probe them.
Probably the most famous and influential of these early medical practitioners was Hippocrates of Greece, who was born in 460 and died in 377 B.C. Modern students of medicine are still required to swear by the Hippocratic Oath upon graduation. But I don’t know how many really internalize and follow it.
My curiosity led me to do some snooping on the Internet, and was surprised to learn that many of his ideas regarding diseases and their treatment were modern.
He was the first physician to separate medical practice from magic, superstition and religion. Diseases, he said, were not caused by the gods or goddesses, but by natural occurrences. He regarded medicine as a science and an art, with its own principles and methods, in contrast to prevailing belief at that time.
‘Health and harmony’
He considered the chief role of the physician “to aid the natural resistance of the body to overcome the metabolic imbalance and restore health and harmony to the organism.”
Although he prescribed medications and salves, he favored the use of food and diet to cure disease. One of his most famous sayings is, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Modern Western medicine, on the other hand, rely mainly on chemical drugs and sometimes surgery to effect a cure.
Hippocrates anticipated by 2,400 years the modern concepts of holistic medicine by opposing the Cnidian school of thought, which considered the human body a mere collection of parts, and only those parts that were afflicted should be treated. (Sounds familiar?) He argued that “the human body functioned as a unified organism and must be treated, in health and disease, as one coherent, integrated whole.”
Following this line of thought, Hippocrates said, “It is more important to know what sort of person has the disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”
One can hardly encounter a modern doctor who will ask a patient what makes him angry or happy, or whether he gets along with his mother-in-law or not, when tracing the cause of his illness. Today’s doctors are concerned only with treating the symptoms of that part of the body that is sick, but seldom consider the whole person.
“A physician,” according to Hippocrates, “without a knowledge of astrology has no right to call himself a physician.”
What’s that again? I thought he had separated medicine from superstition and unfounded beliefs.
What he means is, the planetary configurations at the time of person’s birth was believed to have an influence on his health and the course of a disease, and therefore astrology could help the physician make better diagnosis and prognosis of illness. What modern-day physician will agree to let medical schools include astrology in their curriculum?If he does, his license to practice medicine will surely be revoked.
Hippocrates left a body of medical writings called the “Hippocratic Corpus,” which consisted of such topics as diagnosis, epidemics, obstetrics, nutrition and surgery.
He also believed that one cause of disease was the imbalance of the four humors or fluids in the body (namely blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile). The job of the physician was to restore such a balance. This theory, of course, has long been abandoned, as knowledge of human anatomy and physiology developed along scientific lines.
Nevertheless, the influence of Hippocrates on medicine and medical practice has extended to the present day.
He was the personification of the great physician—wise, caring, compassionate and honest.
He is mainly remembered today by his famous oath (in its modern, revised version), which is solemnly recited by most graduating medical students all over the world.
Among the salient provisions of the original oath are:
1) “I swear by all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses that, to my ability and judgement, I will keep this oath and this covenant—to teach them this art (of medicine) without fee or covenant.”
2) “I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients and I will do no harm or injustice to them.”
3) “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly, I will not give a woman an abortive remedy.”
4) “Whatever house I may visit I will remain free of sexual relations with both female and male person.”
5) “What I may see or hear in the course of treatment I will keep to myself.”
This oath was first used as a rite of passage in 1508 at the University of Wittenberg.
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