ca. 460-ca. 380 B.C.
Hippocrates is known as the Father of Medicine. Probably born on Cos, an island off the west coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), he lived at about the same time as the philosopher* Socrates. Although more than 60 ancient Greek writings in all branches of medicine bear the name of Hippocrates, scholars do not believe that any were actually written by him. These writings are credited with helping to free medicine from superstitious beliefs. Hippocrates is known for the Hippocratic Oath, a version of which is still taken today by new doctors.
Little is known about the life of Hippocrates. He belonged to the Asclepiad, a guild* of physicians who claimed descent from Asclepius, the god of healing. He learned medicine from his father, and he may have studied philosophy with the Sophists. Hippocrates worked as a physician in many regions throughout Greece, and on his native island of Cos he taught medicine to students for a fee. He died at Larissa in the northeastern Greek region of Thessaly.
The medical works written under the name of Hippocrates were composed during the late 400s and early 300s B.C., possibly by his students or followers. Scholars at the great library of Alexandria gathered these writings in the 200s B.C. into a collection known as the Hippocratic corpus*. These works deal with all branches of medicine, such as anatomy*, diet, drugs, surgery, and the diseases of women and children. Some are reports of specific medical conditions, known as case histories. Important Hippocratic essays include the Epidemics, a seven-volume work that describes the serious illnesses of 40 patients (all of whom died) and On the Sacred Disease, the first study to treat epilepsy* as a medical condition and not as the result of divine powers.
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* guild association of professionals that set standards and represented the interests of its members
* corpus the complete works of an author
* anatomy branch of science concerned with the structure of living organisms
The Hippocratic work Airs, Waters, Places was the first large-scale work on the influence of climate and living conditions on health, intellect, and attitude. Hippocratic doctors observed that water and air were important substances for health and life. Water that was too soft or too hard, or air that was polluted, led to disease and ill health. The work also indicated which diseases were likely to strike a population during the winter and summer months.
Another theory concerned the humors (the bodily fluids of blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) and their balance. According to Hippocratic doctors, ill health occurred when one of the humors was out of balance. One way to maintain a balance in the humors and thus avoid disease was to eat a healthy diet. Most importantly, the Hippocratic school of medicine believed that to understand how a part of the body worked, it was necessary to know how the body functioned as a whole. A physician who shared this outlook could make an accurate diagnosis, or recognize a disease by its symptoms, and then treat the patient for the illness.
Among the Hippocratic works are the Aphorisms, a collection of 412 short statements concerning medicine. The first and most famous of these sayings sums up Hippocrates’ beliefs: “Life is Short, Art long, Occasion sudden and dangerous, Experience deceitful, and Judgment difficult.” (See also Galen; Medicine, Greek; Medicine, Roman.)
* epilepsy a disorder of the nervous system that sometimes causes convulsions and loss of consciousness
CREATING A LEGEND
The earliest known biography of Hippocrates was written 500 years after his death by Soranus, a physician to the Roman emperor Trajan. Long before then, however, many myths and legends arose about Hippocrates' life. He was said to have saved Athens from the plague in 430 B.C. by burning fires throughout the city. Hippocrates was also believed to have cured Perdiccas, the king of Macedonia, from a terrible case of lovesickness, and he treated the philosopher Democritus for being excessively amused. None of these stories is believed to be true.