Hippocrates (c. 460 BC – c. 370 BC): Biography and Major Achievements
Born on the Greek island of Cos (Modern Greek Kos), Hippocrates was a famous ancient Greek physician who introduced his world to civilized, ethical medical practice. Most known for the Hippocratic Oath, an oath that medical practitioners take to uphold the integrity of the profession, Hippocrates encouraged the removal of superstitious beliefs from the field of medicine. Due to his distinguished contribution to medicine, he’s been popularly held as the “Father of Medicine”.
Like many scholars of the Classical period in Greece history, Hippocrates’ story suffers from the lack of adequate information about his upbringing and personal life. What we do know is that this Greek physician was born around 460 BC on the island of Cos (present day Greece).
His admiration for scientific approaches to curing sicknesses is what made him a revered figure. He is best known for advocating ethical standards in the field.
About half a millennium after the death of Hippocrates, Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus came out with a biography of Hippocrates. Other biographers of Hippocrates contributed immensely to the Suda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia.
According to Soranus, Hippocrates’ parents were physician Heracleides and Praxitela, the daughter of Tizane. He is said to have fathered two sons – Thessalus and Draco – that followed in his footsteps and became physicians.
Hippocrates embarked on a many journeys across Greece and Asia Minor. Where ever he went, he inculcated into physicians an ethics-based practice devoid of unnecessary superstitious beliefs.
There have been doubts about the historical accurateness of the life of Hippocrates, with some people doubting whether he existed in the first place. There, however, isn’t much ample evidence to support such claims.
Interest in the works and life of Hippocrates is said to have gathered momentum starting around the Hellenistic period. That period began about hundred years after his death.
“The Asclepaid of Cos”
As a teacher, he received the admiration of number of his contemporaries, including famous Greek philosopher and scientist Plato. The philosopher, who mentioned Hippocrates on two occasions, called the physician “the Asclepiad of Cos” (in Plato’s Protagoras). Plato also described Hippocrates as a brilliant physician who tapped into philosophy to find new and innovative ways to cure people of their sickness.
The epithet “Asclepaid”, a reference to the Greek god of medicine Asclepius, was given to physicians that hailed from a family of prominent physicians.
Hippocrates’ fame was comparable with famous individuals from other disciplines, particularly the sculptor Polyclitus.
“The Great Physician”
Greek polymath Aristotle, a younger contemporary of Hippocrates, described the physician as the “the Great Physician”. According to Meno, a follower of Aristotle, Hippocrates believed that diseases were caused by substances that could not digest. Those substances were in turn caused by an improper diet. The physician went on to say that those undigested substances produced a bad vapor that is unhealthy for the body.
Hippocratic medical writings and treatises from the Hellenistic Era
His contribution to sound, ethical medical practice was so immense that almost all medical writings and compilations from the Classical Greek period were considered the work of Hippocrates. However, it’s been revealed that a significant part of the works attributed to Hippocrates was not actually written by the physician.
Inspired by Hippocrates, the Hippocratic writings and commentaries were often made without the use of technical medical words. Hellenistic writers and physicians kept their writings as simple as possible in order to popularize the views of Hippocrates, which centered on ethical medical diagnosing and treatment of illnesses.
Aside from the approaches they espoused, the Hippocratic writings, also known as the Hippocratic Corpus (Corpus Hippocraticum), were known for having fundamental assumptions on some important medical topics. Almost all the writings rejected the claim that diseases were caused by superstitious factors.
Note: Due to the variations in the writing styles and viewpoints, it is very unlikely that the numerous Hippocratic writings (Corpus Hippocraticum) were made by one person. However, it is undoubtedly clear that those medical writers took a lot of inspiration from the life and works of Hippocrates.
Contributions to medicine
Medical treatises like the Epidemics – annual records of weather and the diseases that coincided with those weather conditions or patterns – gained immense popularity among physicians of the Hellenistic era. Other Hippocratic works also reported the steady progress made in diagnosis and prognosis of diseases of the era. There were also treatise on setting fractures, treating wounds, hygiene protocols for disease prevention, diseases of women, children, and other issues in pediatrics.
Basically, Hippocrates of Cos’ early works are what laid the foundation for the proliferation of Hippocratic writings, as well as the increased use of objective principles and systematic approach in medical practice.
The above explains why writers in medical branches like pharmacy, anatomy, chemistry, physiology and surgery credited Hippocrates as their source of inspiration. For example, 2nd century CE Greek physician Gelen of Pergamum revered Hippocrates as his greatest influence.
Unlike the works and discoveries of physicians that came after him, Hippocrates’ seemed to have stood the test time as they did not have to contend with new medical advances and scientific methods. The simplicity and dogma-free nature of his works are just some of the reasons why he was given the honor as the “Father of Medicine”.
Finally, Hippocrates’ contributions lie in the fact that he inspired subsequent physicians to establish medicine as a distinct discipline from other professional fields, particularly dissociating it from theurgy (i.e. superstitious beliefs).
The Hippocratic Oath
Although Hippocrates was a passionate admirer of strong ethical medical practice, it’s been said that he was not the originator of the Hippocratic Oath. So how did the Hippocratic Oath emerge?
The fame of Hippocrates was so immense that centuries after his death, the techniques he espoused in disease diagnosis and prognosis kept shaping the field of medicine. Soon, non-factual stories about the life of Hippocrates emerged, which in turn further increased the fame of Hippocrates throughout the Hellenistic period.
Therefore, the Hippocratic Oath, along with works like On Regimen in Acute Disease and Instrument of Reduction, is generally considered part of those works that were added to the burgeoning Hippocratic Corpus.
The Hippocratic Oath covers the ethics and objective process of diagnosing and treating ailment of the human body that a medical worker ought to follow when carrying out his/her duties. Even to this day, it is not uncommon for medical students and graduates to take a modified version of this oath and other derivatives.
Hippocrates and the Koan School of thought
Hippocrates and his followers belonged to the Koan school of thought which used very mild and broad treatment techniques to tend to diseases. In diagnosing the disease, subscribers of this school of thought used broad diagnosing technique. The school, which focused more on prognosis than diagnosis, is credited with advancing medical practice, particularly ethics in the practice.
On the other hand, the Knidian School was more concerned with getting diagnosis, which at that time, could be fatal to the patient in cases of wrong diagnosis. It must be noted that modern medicine is much similar to the Knidian School than the Hippocratic School.
More Hippocrates Facts
Also known in Turkish as İstanköy, Cos (modern Greek Kos) is widely agreed as the birthplace of Hippocrates. The island is located off the southwestern coast of Turkey; it is also the third largest of the Dodecanese Islands in Greece.
Majority of the works attributed to Hippocrates that survived are said to have been written by other writers. Many of his works and treatises were placed in the famous Library of Alexandria in the City of Alexandria, Egypt. More than 50 of those works survived.
He was a well-traveled man, often times visiting many towns in mainland Greece and Asia Minor.
He took to teaching at a medical school in his hometown in Cos. According to Greek author and physician Galen, the true successor of Hippocrates was Polybus, who was one of Hippocrates’s most distinguished students.
About hundred years after his death, his life story and works gained popularity starting in the Hellenistic period (Ptolemaic Era).
His name has been etched in the timeless archive of world history due to the Hippocratic Oath that medical professionals take even to this day. There have been some claims that the Hippocratic Oath was not written by Hippocrates.
During Hippocrates time, it was forbidden to dissect a human body. This prevented them from knowing anything about the anatomy or physiology of the human body.
Some ancient scholars and physicians considered his works too great to be improved upon. The downside to this was that it caused the progress in medicine to dwindle for a long time.
The Healing Power of Nature (vis medicatrix naturae)
He was famed for using passive and gentle (i.e. therapeutic approach) techniques in treating his patients. He firmly believed in the healing power of nature, which when translated into Latin comes out as the phrase: vis medicatrix naturae.
Hippocratic medical techniques were famed for getting the individual to full health by easing that natural process.
Many of the writings in the Corpus Hippocraticum opined that the human body has the natural ability to heal itself by re-balancing the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm).
To fasten the process, Hippocrates and his followers recommended a number of things, including resting and immobilization.
Hippocrates steered away from prescribing strong medications and specialized treatment; often times, he preferred kind medicine and gentle treatment. He also advised that the patient be kept clean at all times, including providing clean water or wine when tending to wounds.
Basically, the focus was on prognosis – i.e. monitoring the progression of a disease by collecting ample data.
Description of Hippocrates
Many Alexandrian texts that were compiled about Hippocrates describe him as a gentle, honorable and old doctor. In some cases, he was described as strict and forbidding. This would explain why Greek polymath Aristotle described Hippocrates as “The Great Hippocrates”.
Hippocratic physicians were very reluctant to give drugs or specialized treatment. They adopted the Koan School of thought, which prescribes generalized therapy after generalized diagnosis.
Hippocrates is praised for injecting a lot of professionalism, discipline and rigorous practice into the medical field. Prior to him, very few physicians considered what they did a profession.
In his advocacy for ethical practices, he encouraged his students to be honest, focused, tidy, and clean when interacting with the patients.
Hippocratic physicians were also encouraged to take records of the patient’s progress so that the data could be used by other physicians.
Hippocrates and his successors were the first Greek physicians to provide description of clubbing of the fingers (also known as digital clubbing). It comes as no surprise that the medical condition is also known as Hippocratic fingers.
Fictional stories about Hippocrates
Although it was a fictional story, the Embassy, which talks about the family of Hippocrates, still got included in the archives of the Library of Alexandria. Fictional works like the Embassy were the reason why many imaginative writings about Hippocrates and his works flourished.
Some Hippocratic writers from that era even came out with imagined correspondences between Hippocrates and rulers and philosophers.
Other major accomplishments
The following are four other accomplishments of Hippocrates:
- Hippocrates has been praised for being the first Greek physician to remove religion from medicine. He opined on numerous occasions that diseases were not punishments from the gods; instead, the physician believed illnesses were the result of our bodies reacting to many natural and physiological factors as well as our diet and habits.
- He received enormous praise from Pythagorean philosophers and scholars for the strides he made introducing philosophical undertones into the field of medicine.
- His writings served as an inspiration to medical professionals for several centuries long after his death. In the Middle Ages, Islamic scholars and physicians were able to make tremendous advances in medicine partly by taking a lot of inspiration from works of Hippocrates and his followers.
- He is popularly held as the first to describe Hippocratic facies – a medical condition that distorts the face of the patient who is close to death. The distortions are often caused by a severe illness, excessive defecation or excessive hunger.
Quotes attributed to Hippocrates