Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was born at Cos during the golden age of Greece, 460 years before Christ. The genius of Hippocrates is unsurpassed in the history of medicine. He was the first to trace disease to a natural and intelligible cause, and to recognize Nature as all-sufficient for healing, and physicians as only her servants. He discussed medical subjects freely and without an air of mystery, scorning all pretenses, and he was also courageous enough to acknowledge his limitations and his failures.
The central principle of belief of Hippocrates was that health depended on the proper proportion and action in the body of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire, and the four cardinal humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. The due combination of these was known as crisis, and existed in health. If a disease were progressing favorably, these humors became changed and combined, preparatory to the expulsion of the morbid matter, which took place at definite periods known as critical days. Hippocrates also held the theory of fluxions, which were conditions in the nature of congestion, as it would now be understood.
In his time public opinion condemned dissection of the human body, but it is certain that dissections were performed by Hippocrates to a limited extent. He did not know the difference between the arteries and the veins, and nerves and ligaments and various membranes were all thought to have analogous functions, but his writings display a correct knowledge of the anatomy of certain parts of the body such as the joints and the brain.
The belief that almost all medical and surgical knowledge is modern is disturbed by the study of the state of knowledge in the time of Hippocrates. To him we are indebted for the classification of diseases into sporadic, epidemic, and endemic, and he also separated acute from chronic diseases. He divided the causes of disease into two classes: general, such as climate, water and sanitation; and personal, such as improper food and neglect of exercise. He based his conclusions on the observation of appearances, and in this way began a new era. The state of the face, eyes, tongue, voice, hearing, abdomen, sleep, breathing, excretions, posture of the body, and so on, all aided him in diagnosis and prognosis.
Hippocrates always aimed at assisting nature. His style of treatment would be known now as expectant, and he tried to order his practice “”to do good or, at least, to do no harm.”” When he considered interference necessary, however, he did not hesitate even to apply drastic measures, such as scarification, cupping, and bleeding. He had various lotions for the healing of ulcers; some of these lotions were antiseptic and have been in use in recent times. His opinions on the treatment of fractures are sound, and he was a master in the use of splints, and considered that it was disgraceful on the part of the surgeon to allow a broken limb to set in a faulty position. He had a very complete knowledge of the anatomy of joints, was well acquainted with hip-joint disease, and could operate upon joints.
Hippocrates died in Thessaly, but at what age is uncertain, for different authors have credited him with a lifetime of from eighty-five to a hundred and nine years. By virtue of his fame, death for him was not the Great Leveller.
Adapted from Outlines of Greek and Roman Medicine by James Elliott, 2007
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