Medicine – Part Three

Medicine in Ancient Greece

Trigger warning. This post involves intelligent white people doing things. For some background, Ancient Greece does not just cover the modern nation state (lol) of Greece as we know it today. And we are talking about classical Greek culture from around the 8th Century B.C. to until the classical period finished and the Middle Ages began. Key to the Greek culture at this time was the idea of the city state. Well known examples are Athens and Sparta, but there was also Corinth, Thebes, etc. Due to land shortages at home in what was still very much an agrarian economy, many Greek cities sent out missions to form colonies. These ranged across the Mediterranean to modern day Turkey (Asia Minor), Crete, Cyprus, Sicily and Italy, Spain, France and North Africa.

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

Picture form Wikimedia Commons

It is often spoken of as a Greek Empire, but the cities were in no way under any single government such as the Romans later had. The Greeks were contemporaries of other civilisations such as the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Romans and Persians. They would have fought, traded, and exchanged knowledge with most if not all of them. Later the Macedonians under Phillip conquered mainland Greece, then he and his son Alexander set about conquering the Near East and parts of North Africa such as Egypt. Later the Greeks were conquered by the Romans, and as we will see this had an impact on medicine.

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was the most influential scholar of the living world from antiquity. Though his early natural philosophy work was speculative, Aristotle’s later biological writings demonstrate great concern for empiricism, biological causation, and the diversity of life. Aristotle did not experiment, however, holding that items display their real natures in their own environments, rather than controlled artificial ones. While in modern-day physics and chemistry this assumption has been found unhelpful, in zoology and ethology it remains the dominant practice, and Aristotle’s work “retains real interest”. He made countless observations of nature, especially the habits and attributes of plants and animals in the world around him, which he devoted considerable attention to categorizing. In all, Aristotle classified 540 animal species, and dissected at least 50.“-Infogalactic

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

The Greeks relied heavily on the theory of the four humours in medicine. These were blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Illnesses in the body were believed to be caused by imbalances between them. Factors linked to them were diet, activity level, social status, the local environment and so on. If you had a fever this was down to yellow bile, which was associated with heat. Phlegm was associated with cold and moisture, and so on. As such they were also linked to the four seasons of the year. Practices such as bleeding the patient were developed on this. What this represented was another rational approach to medicine. This was developed further by Hippocrates.

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

Hippocrates is known as the father of modern medicine. He lived between around 460B.C. and 360 B.C. He rejected the supernatural as the cause of disease. He came up with the Hippocratic Oath which was used to form the basis of medical ethics. One requirement was not to use medical treatment for wrongdoing or harm. Hippocrates set up a medical school to train others. He wrote many works, as did his pupils and these formed a basis of knowledge that was shared throughout the Greek world and beyond. Many of these ideas lasted throughout the classical era, in to the Middle Ages and were not challenged until the Renaissance.

One key practice of Hippocrates was clinical observation. He and his followers wrote down the symptoms of diseases and how they progressed from start to finish. Hippocrates believed in trying different remedies and recording the results. He believed the body had the power to heal itself and most of the treatments were to soothe the patient and help this process. As such most of the treatments were herbal. Th idea of clinical diagnosis was developed, moving from diagnosis, prognosis, observation and treatment.

With the growth of patient compliance in Greek medicine, consent became an important factor between the doctor and patient relationship. Presented with all the information concerning the patient’s health, the patient makes the decision to accept treatment. Physician and patient responsibility is mentioned in the treatise ”Epidemics”, where it states, “there are three factors in the practice of medicine: the disease, the patient and the physician. The physician is the servant of science, and the patient must do what he can to fight the disease with the assistance of the physician”-Infogalactic

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

There was still a strong supernatural strand to Greek medicine. This came mainly in the form of the god Asklepios or Asclepius, and his daughters Hygeia and Panacea. Temples were dedicated to Asklepios, known as Asklpieia, or an Asklepion. Here priests treated patients with herbal remedies and their dreams interpreted. They were placed in to dream like state where the god would offer them guidance or cure them through surgery. Some temples were large enough to house baths, libraries and theaters.

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

An inscription found at the temple oat Epidaurus reads “A man with an abscess in his abdomen went to sleep in the Temple of Asklepios. In his dreams, Asklepios ordered the servants that accompanied him to grip him and hold him tightly so that he could cut open his abdomen. The man tried to escape but they gripped him and bound him. Asklpios cut open his belly, removed the abscess, stitched him up and released him. The man woke up sound and left the temple, but the floor was covered in blood.”

Greeks took some of the old Egyptian ideas but doctors like Hippocrates were challenging them. The four humours overtook the idea of channels and blockages in the body. The supernatural strand of medicine continued to run alongside the more rational treatments. The Romans conquered the Greeks as their empire expanded, and took on board many of their ideas which they took with them to all parts of the empire. So next we shall look at Ancient Rome…

© Jonathon Davies 2018

(Pictures from the Public Domain or Wikimedia Commons under the Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.)

Audio file