The father of medicine

Sunday, 16 June, is Father’s Day. On that day I will raise a glass of fine red wine to celebrate the 2484th birthday of Hippocrates, the Greek physician of ancient times, who is considered to be the father of medicine. 

Hippocrates was born into a family of priest doctors in 460 BC in ancient Greece on the island of Kos. He was taught by his physician-priest father, Heraclides, and his grandfather, also named Hippocrates. In those days anyone could become a physician without any formal training, provided he was born into a family of doctors.[1] The self-appointed physicians practised surgery; assisted in suicide; performed abortions; believed in reincarnation, transmigration, and the immortality of the soul; and thought the harmony of nature was found in numbers and the seat of intelligence was either in the heart or in the brain.[2]

Like other physicians of the time, Hippocrates knew almost nothing of human anatomy and physiology because of the Greek taboo of that time forbidding dissection of humans. Yet, he is considered the first person to believe that diseases are caused naturally, not because of superstition and gods. He separated the discipline of medicine from religion, arguing that disease was not a punishment of the gods but a product of environmental factors, diet, and living habits.[3]

The therapeutic approach of Hippocratic medicine was based on the healing power of nature. He did mistakenly believe that the body had four essential humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, and that the human body had the power to rebalance these and thus heal itself. His therapy focused on easing this “natural process.” To assist, soothing balms were used. Rest and immobilization were important, and treatments were gentle, keeping the patient clean. He ensured that physicians recorded their findings and their medicinal methods, including complexion, pulse, fever, pains, and excretions—what today we call clinical inspection and observations.[3]

Hippocrates categorized diseases, laying the ground for medical classification. For example, his classification of mental diseases included mania, melancholy, paranoia, epilepsy, and hysteria. He suggested that the brain is the organ responsible for mental illness. He argued that the diagnosis and treatment of mental and physical diseases is based on observation and consideration of the causes, including the balance of the mythical four liquids. Music and theater played an essential role in treating physical and mental illness and improving human behavior.[4]

Hippocrates established the basics of clinical medicine as it is practised today. He set the stepping stones for the foundation of modern medicine, developing medical terms, definitions, protocols, and guidelines for the classification of diseases. These are today’s gold standards for diagnosis, management, and prevention of disease.[4]

The Hippocratic ideal is reflected in the Hippocratic Oath. The Oath is the earliest expression of medical ethics in the Western world. Modern scholars do not think it was written by Hippocrates himself.
While the oath has been modified over the years, the famous phrase: “First do no harm” is thought to be part of the original oath; the Latin version of “Primum non nocere” is dated to the 17th century.[5]

Happy Father’s Day, Dr Hippocrates!
—George Szasz, CM, MD

1.    Tsiompanou E, Marketos SG. Hippocrates: Timeless still. J R Soc Med 2013:106:288-292.
2.    Faria MA. A journey through time to ancient Greek medicine with medical historian and classical scholar Plinio Prioireschi, MD, PhD. Surg Neurol Int 2015:6:100.
3.    Wikipedia. Hippocrates. Accessed 12 June 2024.
4.    Kleisiaris C, Sfakianakis C, Papathanasiou IV. Health practices in ancient Greece. The Hippocratic ideal. J Med Ethics Hist Med 2014:7:6.
5.    Wikipedia. Hippocratic Oath. Accessed 12 June 2024.

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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