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Hippocratic medicine

Frontispiece, from works of Hippocrates, Venice 1588.

Frontispiece, from works of Hippocrates, Venice 1588.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Hippocratic medicine was based on the natural philosophy the Greeks had been developing since the 500s BCE. It used careful observation, logical deduction, experimentation and record-keeping. Hippocratic doctors were cautious and sceptical, a view summed up by their famous saying: ‘The art is long; life is short; the occasion fleeting; experience fallacious, and judgment difficult.’ They were also sceptical about the ‘witch-doctors, faith-healers, quacks and charlatans’ they saw all around them.

Hippocrates was a real person, though he did not write all of the Hippocratic Corpus. He lived on the island of Cos, near present-day Turkey, around 460-370 BCE in the Greek Golden Age. He had a family and taught medicine to paying pupils. He may have come from a family of healers - certainly his son-in-law Polybus carried on his work. Hippocrates became famous in his lifetime, and inspired a school of followers who adhered to his natural healing methods.

Over 60 Hippocratic essays were gathered together around 250 BCE, and are called the Hippocratic Corpus. Some could be learnt by memory, such as the Hippocratic oath or the lists of ‘aphorisms’ (health proverbs). Others were case studies of disease epidemics, surgical anatomy and births. ‘Airs, waters and places’ described the healthy environment. Some, such as the ‘Regimen of health’, were written instructions for the patient, or described methods of prognosis to help identify diseases.

Greek medicine developed the theories of humoralism into the concept of four humours following the four seasons. In the 100s CE, Galen (129 - c. 216 CE) updated Hippocratic methods, and added ‘non-naturals’ - factors which affected the health and prevented illness.


Related links

Techniques and Technologies:


G E R Lloyd, Hippocratic Writings (London: Penguin Classics, 1978)

V Nutton, Ancient Medicine (London and New York: Routledge, 2004)