What is ancient Greek medicine?
Greek doctors turned the corner from a reliance on divine intervention for healing to practical, natural solutions. Some of their theories continue to impact present scientific and medical thinking.
The ancient Greeks embraced the concept of "a healthy mind in a healthy body," and their view of medicine incorporated both physical and mental wellbeing.
The most famous and probably the most important medical figure in ancient Greece was Hippocrates, who we know today as "the father of medicine."
Medicine and math
The Ancient Greeks were the first people to establish medicine as a separate discipline.
In the early days of ancient Greece, medicine was not yet a definable subject. In time, specialists in other fields brought knowledge to bear on the field of health, and they established the discipline of medicine.
Pythagoras lived in the 6th century B.C.E. He was a mathematician who brought his theory of numbers into the natural sciences.
His followers believed that numbers had precise meanings, especially the numbers 4 and 7.
They noted that:
- 7 x 4 is 28, the length of the lunar month and the menstrual cycle
- 7 x 40 is 280, the number of days of a full-term pregnancy
They also believed that a baby that was born in the seventh month, rather than the eighth, would enjoy better health.
The 40-day quarantine period to avoid disease contagion comes from the idea that the number 40 is sacred.
Culture and philosophy
The ancient Greeks were thirsty for logic and logic-based discussions, and they were curious about why things existed and why events happened. This curiosity paved the way for important developments in math and science.
Ancient records show that they set up an early medical school in Cnidus in 700 B.C.E. Here, they began the practice of observing patients who were sick.
Alcmaeon lived around 500 B.C.E. and worked at this school. He wrote widely on medicine, although he was probably a philosopher of science rather than a doctor.
He appears to have been the first person to wonder about the possible internal causes of illness. He proposed that illness might result from environmental problems, nutrition, and lifestyle.
The Greeks of antiquity were great traders and relatively wealthy. They promoted and enjoyed cultural activities, including poetry, public debates, politics, architecture, sculpture, comedy, and drama.
Their writing was phonetic, meaning that people could read it out loud. This was a more flexible form of written communication and easier for people to understand than hieroglyphs.
War and the Olympic Games
Two crucial factors that encouraged the ancient Greeks to seek healing and promote health were military activity and sport.
In wars, doctors worked to heal wounds, remove foreign bodies, and look after the general health of soldiers.
The Olympic Games, which began in ancient Greece, raised the need for people to keep healthy in order to promote fitness and prevent injury.
Techniques included using olive oil to raise body temperature and the practice of warming up before competing to avoid injury.
Nature vs. superstition
As Greek doctors started wondering whether all illnesses and disorders might not have a natural cause, they also considered responding to illness with natural cures. Until then, incantations and attempts at repelling evil spirits had been the most popular form of medicine.
Around 300 B.C.E., Alexander the Great had turned Greece into a massive empire that spread across the Middle East. The Greeks built the city of Alexandria in Egypt, turning it into a vast center for education and learning.
The ancient Greeks still believed in and revered their gods, but science gradually became more critical as they tried to explain the reasons and solutions for illnesses and other aspects of life.
The four humors
Empedocles put forward the idea that all natural matter consisted of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire.
This idea of four elements prompted ancient Greek doctors to establish the theory of four humors or liquids. These four humors were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The idea then developed of keeping these four humors in balance as a necessity for good health.
The ancient Greeks later linked each humor to a season, an organ, a temper, and an element, as seen in this table:
|Black bile||Spleen||Melancholy||Cold||Dry earth|
|Yellow bile||Lungs||Phlegmatic||Cold and wet||Water|
|Phlegm||The head||Sanguine||Warm and wet||Air|
|Blood||Gallbladder||Choleric||Warm and dry||Fire|
The theory developed that when all the humors balanced and mingled properly, the person would experience perfect health. Consequently, illness would occur when someone had too much or too little of one of the humors.
This theory remained popular in Western Europe until the 17th century. However, while the ancient Greeks pushed medicine forward in many ways, the theory of humors posed an obstacle to advances in medical practice.
It was not until 2,000 years later that scientists concluded the theory was false. Hippocrates, father of western medicine
Hippocrates remains 'the father of western medicine.'
Hippocrates of Kos lived from 460–370 B.C.E. As the founder of the Hippocratic School of Medicine, he made major contributions to medicine that persist today.
The teaching at his school revolutionized medicine and established it as a profession and a discipline in its own right. Until then, medicine had been a part of philosophy and the practice of rituals, incantations, and the casting off of evil spirits.
Hippocrates and his colleagues wrote the "Hippocratic Corpus," which comprised around 60 early ancient Greek medical works.
These early medical practitioners promoted the systematic study of clinical medicine. This means they studied diseases by directly examining the living person.
Nowadays, the Hippocratic oath is a vow that doctors and other health professionals take when they qualify. They swear to practice medicine ethically and honestly.
Hippocrates left other legacies as well, including the following.
Hippocrates, and those from his school of medicine, were the first people to describe and properly document several diseases and disorders, including a detailed description of clubbing of the fingers.
Clubbing of the fingers is a hallmark sign of chronic suppurative lung disease, cyanotic heart disease, and lung cancer. Until today, some doctors use the term "Hippocratic fingers" for clubbed fingers.
The Hippocratic face
This term describes a face not long before death.
If an individual had the following signs and they were not making any improvements, the doctor might suspect that they were close to death:
- a sharp nose
- sunken eyes and temples
- ears cold and drawn in, with distorted lobes
- hard, stretched, and dry facial skin
- pale and dusky face
Hippocrates and his school were the first to use the following medical terms:
- acute and chronic
- endemic and epidemic
Other medical terms
Other words that came from ancient Greek and persist in modern medical usage include:
- bios, or life
- genea, relating to birth or descent
- gynec, meaning a woman
- ophthalmos, an eye
- ped- referring to a child
- pneuma, or breath
- physis, which means being, or nature
Medical practice and research
Two famous Greek philosophers, Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) and Plato (424–348 B.C.E.) concluded that the human body had no use in the afterlife.
This thinking spread and influenced Greek doctors. It allowed the Greeks to start finding out about the inside of the human body in a systematic way.
At Alexandria in Egypt, scholars starting dissecting dead bodies and studying them. Sometimes, they would cut open the bodies of criminals who were still alive. This kind of research led to the following conclusions:
- the brain and not the heart controls movement of limbs
- blood moves through the veins
However, they did not note that blood circulates in the body.
Thucydides, who lived around 460–395 B.C.E., concluded that prayers were ineffective against illnesses and plagues and that epilepsy had a scientific explanation that was nothing to do with angry gods or evil spirits.
As time moved on, Greek medical professionals and scholars increasingly sought entirely natural theories for the cause of diseases.
Diagnosis and treatment
Greek doctors used diagnostic methods that were not very different from those in use today. Many of their natural remedies were similar to some current home remedies.
Greek doctors would carry out clinical observations. They would perform a thorough physical examination.
Their Hippocratic books gave guidance on how to do the examination and which diseases to consider or rule out.
As magic and incantations gave way to a search for natural causes, people also started looking for natural cures.
Greek doctors became expert herbalists and prescribers of natural remedies. They believed that nature rather than superstition was the best healer.
Hippocratic books mentioned the following treatments:
Chest diseases: Take barley soup plus vinegar and honey to bring up phlegm.
Pain in the side: Dip a large soft sponge in water and apply gently. If the pain reaches the collarbone, the doctor should draw off blood near the elbow until the blood flows bright red.
Pneumonia: A bath will relieve pain and help to bring up phlegm. The patient must remain completely still in the bath.
By trying to balance the four humors when their patients were ill, doctors would sometimes get things right, even if they did it for the wrong reasons.
When attempting to balance the natural temperature of a patient, they:
- kept a person warm when they had a cold
- kept feverish and sweaty patients dry and cool
- bleed patients to restore the blood balance
- purged a person to restore the bile balance, for example, by giving them laxatives or diuretics or making them vomit
In the examples above, the first two make sense in modern medicine, the third one does not, and the fourth depends on the person's illness. If a person swallows something toxic, it is sometimes a good idea to cause them to vomit.
The Greeks also recommended music and theater as therapies for mental and physical illness.
Appealing to the gods
The snake became a symbol of pharmacy. Many pharmacists still use a similar symbol today.
Despite shifting toward natural rather than spiritual remedies, many doctors still appealed to the gods if their treatments did not work.
Asklepios was the Greek god of healing, and there was a temple in Epidaurus, called Asklepion. Eventually, this and similar temples became health spas, gymnasiums, public baths, and sports stadia.
Some doctors would treat their patients and then take them to the temple to sleep. They believed that Hygeia and Panacea, daughters of Asklepios, would arrive with two holy snakes that would cure the people they were treating.
From "Hygeia" we have the word hygiene. The snake today is the symbol of pharmacists.
Constant wars gave doctors experience in practical first aid, and they became skilled experts at setting broken bones, fixing dislocated limbs, and curing slipped discs.
They would close a wound using thread, and dress it with sponge or linen soaked in vinegar, wine, oil, or water, seawater, honey, or powdered plants.
They then encouraged the patient to consume foods, such as celery, which they believed had anti-inflammatory properties.
The ancient Greeks'understanding of infection remained limited, however. They believed that pus was useful for removing toxins from the body, an idea that persisted into medieval times.
However, the lack of effective anesthetic and antiseptic medicines made it almost impossible for the ancient Greeks to perform surgery deep inside the human body.
The ancient Greeks built baths for cleaning and leisure purposes.
The Greek authorities were not aware of the importance of public health, and they did not promote it as the Romans did, for example, through clean water supplies.
However, the people believed in staying healthy. There were private and public baths, some in areas of naturally warm spring water.
Wealthy and educated Greeks worked at:
- maintaining a constant temperature
- cleaning their teeth
- washing regularly
- keeping fit
- eating healthfully
They aimed to keep the four humors in balance throughout the year.
Greek doctors also believed in the benefit of doing things in moderation.
A study of data for 83 eminent men in ancient Greece found that they lived, on average, to around 70 years of age.
However, these people would have had the privilege of good food and relatively comfortable living conditions. The overall average life expectancy was probably far lower, due to infant mortality, death in childbirth, poverty, and other forms of deprivation.
Hippocrates noted that poor people would be too focused on making ends meet to worry about their overall health.
Ancient Greek thinking and philosophy paved the way for significant advances in medicine.
In 129 C.E., Galen was born. He and other doctors would help to spread Greek ideas about medicine to the Roman Empire and beyond.
As a result, much of what the Greeks taught and learned about medicine still persists as a basis for modern scientific medicine.