Ancient Greek medicine

The first known medical school in Greece opened in 700 B.C. The ancient Greeks were masters at observation. Not only did they develop many theories on their own, they also greatly respected the Egyptian view of medicine.

Perhaps the most famous ancient Greek doctor known is Hippocrates. Not only did Hippocrates teach medicine to contemporary students, he also developed guidelines that are still used by doctors today. The Hippocratic Oath was an ethical code used by physicians. Students would pay for training, and medical professionals would offer instruction and hands-on experience.

The Hippocratic Oath also limited the actions of physicians. Doctors were allowed to do no harm, prescribe no deadly drugs, and perform no surgery to which they are incapable.

Hippocrates and other Greeks believed that the body was made of four humors:red blood, yellow bile, black bile, and green phlegm. Perfect health came from balanced humors, while illness was caused by an imbalance. Should a patient have too much of one humor, medical professionals would try to restore the balance. Therefore, an excess of blood would be treated with bloodletting; an excess of yellow bile would require vomiting and purging.

Aristotle contributed to the knowledge of ancient Greek medicine as well. Through his study of biology, he categorized and observed nature. His study of the human form, along with animal and plant species, led him to believe in the Great Chain of Being, in which all living things were created. Plants were at the bottom of the chain, while men, the peak of perfection, stood proudly at the top.

Herophilus, the first teacher of medicine in Alexandria, linked intelligence with the brain. He was able to distinguish between arteries and veins, and observed that a pulse could be taken from arteries. His diagnoses depended on distinguishing between different types of pulse, depending on the area of the body.

Over time, the Romans couldn’t help but notice that the Greeks had some great ideas on medicine. While early Roman reactions ran the gamut, eventually the Romans adopted Hippocratic medicine.

Due to the Roman acceptance of Greek medical theories, these theories spread throughout the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, upon the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church put all their support behind Galen’s teachings.

For many centuries afterwards, the influence of ancient Greek physicians was felt. Even into the 19th century, bloodletting was a common (though risky) proposition, based on ancient Greek medicine. Despite the risks of infection and death, physicians continued to use bloodletting as medical treatment.

Throughout history, few cultures have had as much of an effect on medicine as the ancient Greeks. They placed a high priority upon healthy lifestyles, and medical professionals were an important part of that. The skill of ancient Greek medical practitioners can be seen even today, and we continue to respect the influence that has made on our medical knowledge.

Hippocrates, photo courtesy Wikipedia.
The four humors of ancient Greece. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.