Hippocratic Medicine

Hippocratic medicine remains one of Ancient Greece\'s lasting contributions to the field of science. Lacking the equipment physicians today take for granted when diagnosing and healing their patients, Hippocratic physicians were forced to create a novel system for explaining and curing disease based upon the prevalent scientific theories of their era. This system became known as the humoral theory of disease. Humoral theory incorporated the theories of Presocratic philosophers in order to explain disease and offer help for a cure. Two themes characterizing Presocratic philosophical thought dramatically influenced humoral theory. The humoral theory approach of Hippocratic medicine was based upon Presocratic philosophical musings about the relationship of man to the world. By the time humoral theory was vogue, philosophers had concluded that both man and the world were governed by the same natural laws. Humoral theory also was based upon Presocratic theories about change and how it occurred in the world; humoral theory depended upon the assertion that contrasting elements constantly contradicted each other, leading to continuous change on one level and stability on another. These two Presocratic theories shaped humoral theory and allowed the physician to develop a rational and empirically based approach to medicine.
Hippocrates - Separating the Man from the Myth
Before we can trace the development of these theories by the Presocratics we must first consider Hippocratic medicine and humoral theory. Most of what is known about the historical figure Hippocrates, the supposed founder of the Hippocratic medical approach, must be evaluated with caution. Hippocrates lived c. 460-370 BC, but further reliable information about his life is difficult to obtain.(1) Two passages from Plato are seen as legitimate sources of information about Hippocrates\' life. Plato lived from 427-348 BC, making him a contemporary of Hippocrates. A passage from Plato\'s work Protagoras suggests that Hippocrates was a physician, associated with the island of Cos, who taught medicine to students for a fee. Another passage from a work of Plato, the Phaedras, alludes to a "method" by which Hippocrates gained an understanding of medicine. These sources provide some means by which to evaluate the impact of Hippocrates upon ancient medical practice.
The Corpus Hippocraticum
Many other texts attributed to Hippocrates shed light upon the Hippocratic method of medicine. None of these texts may be identified as Hippocrates\' own work, however. These works are called the Corpus Hippocraticum and number upwards of sixty.(2) Scholars have suggested that the texts may have been part of a library collection, originally from Cos, that was subsequently moved to Alexandria and then added upon, building the collection of medical texts we have today.(3) While not primary sources, these works were written by Hippocrates\' students and practitioners of his medical theory. Therefore, the texts of the Corpus Hippocraticum provide us with an understanding of the elusive Hippocratic method first articulated by Plato.
Humoral Theory
The Corpus Hippocraticum outlines how physicians adhering to this particular school of thought believed disease occurred. Physicians who followed the Hippocratic method attributed chronic disease to the imbalance of one of four humors in the body.(4) The text The Nature of Man discusses these humors--blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm-- and the necessity of balancing them to maintain health. Physicians associated each humor with a season of the year. A Hippocratic physician would diagnose a cold caught in the winter as the result of a preponderance of phlegm, while that very same cold caught in the summer would be caused by a preponderance of yellow bile.(5) Humoral theory became the basis for therapeutic treatments; the physician would attempt to "balance" the skewed humors with his treatment.
The Regimen
The Hippocratic physician would pursue these treatments in an increasingly aggressive fashion. The physician\'s first option was to suggest a regimen to his patient. This treatment consisted of advice regarding what the patient should eat and drink, and the amount of sleep and exercise he needed; it amounted to a cautious "let nature take its course" approach.(6) The purpose of the regimen was to void the body of the imbalanced humor through a diet and exercise program. The physician would tailor such a regimen to the time of the year and to specific patient characteristics, and would wait until his patient\'s condition noticeably improved or worsened.
Drugs and Humoral Theory
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