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Friday, 13 December 2013

Hippocrates: the Father of Western Medicine

Considering that Hippocrates has profoundly influenced the development of Western medicine we rather surprisingly know very little about him!

In my last post I introduced the idea that in the context of medicine I believe we need to de-mechanize our bodies, to consider the healing needs of soul and spirit alongside the modern and often wonderful scientific advances, to develop a truly holistic healing opportunity for the patient.

the Lotus flower - divine symbol in Asian traditions
Over the next few weeks I shall trace the history of Western Medicine, showing how we lost sight of this important truth and how we are beginning to pick up the traces again.

We continue the story in Ancient Greece with Hippocrates, widely and popularly regarded as the father of Western medicine as we now know it. Hippocrates was a Greek physician born in the fifth century BC on the island of Cos. The Hippocratic Oath or a modified version of it is still taken by physicians on first qualification at some Universities. Hippocrates developed and worked with a physical model of the human being, looking for cures to physical conditions and following a rational, evidence based medicine with recourse to external agents to effect the cures, much as science is applied to medicine today.

His medicine was based on observation and objectivity, placing more emphasis on the body that could be measured and described, rather than on the subjectivity of feelings and senses. The Hippocratic physicians were not very interested in the opinion of the patient and distanced themselves from any of the charms and incantations of the many traditional and ‘unconventional’ healing methods of the time based on magic and religion. This is why Virgil described the medicine of the day as the silent art. Indeed Hippocrates is still sometimes blamed when people today say that doctors do not communicate well with their patients!

Hippocrates was however said to be good at diagnosis and prognosis. Perhaps, who knows, he used his intuitive skills, that we now see in the modern day medical intuitives. The Hippocratic School believed that all disease had its origin in the yellow and black biles, blood and phlegm, which were the four fluids of the body. These fluids were believed to parallel the natural elements of air, earth, fire and water and their varying proportions in the body influenced the emotional or physical attributes of the patient, or their ‘humors’. At that time medicine was by no means the respectable profession that we recognize today.

A Buddhist shrine in Bangkok
Medicine had no status and anyone was able to practice in whatever form they wished.

Hippocrates gained respect in this environment with his more detailed methodology. That is not to say that he lost sight of the holistic approach to medicine, which he is said to have still regarded as important in the overall treatment of the person.

It seems though that he believed in a natural and unknown healing power of the mind rather than a divine or spiritual healing force. 

Hippocrates insisted that the body could heal itself naturally and that no treatment should interfere with that healing process. The predominant philosophy in Hippocrates’ time regarding the relationship of the mind and body was that of Plato, who broadly speaking believed that humans had an external soul, linked to the physical body but existing before and after the life of the material body. Certainly the influences of the mind and emotions on physical health were recognized.

One of the less conventional methods of healing that was already well established in Greece at that time was to be found in the Asklepian Temples, named after Asklepios, the Greek God of Healing. Hippocrates was said to respect this hugely popular treatment of the day.

Asklepios was the son of a union between the nymph Coronis and the great Apollo. Because Coronis had been unfaithful to Apollo Apollo’s twin sister Artemis killed her during her pregnancy. The baby Asklepios was removed from his mother’s dead body on the funeral pyre, probably by his father or Hermes, and handed over to Chiron the Wounded Healer to raise him in the art of healing. Asklepios looked towards psychological and spiritual healing, of the mind and soul, for what were otherwise regarded as incurable and chronic conditions. The Greek view of the day was that such conditions were caused by the gods and needed divine healing and that this had to come from within. The Island of Cos had an important Asklepian healing temple and would be visited by such invalids. The patients would be fasted, rested and cleansed in sacred springs under the supervision of the priests. They would then be left to sleep in special resting places, where they would dream. The essence of the healing was that this process of dreaming worked within the psyche of the patient rather than at his conscious level. In the morning the dreams would be discussed with the temple priests and the patient would then leave an offering before he went on his way. Snakes played an important role in this healing process in the temples. It is possible that their healing power was attributed to their ability to slough their skins regularly. This would have been seen as rejuvenation, although of course we know now that this is a natural stage of the growth process.

Snakes are still symbolized in the Caduceus, the international medical symbol that shows a serpent entwined around Asklepios’ staff. 

The Caduceus has also become the popular symbol of the Wounded Healer. It is known that Hippocrates worked in co-operation with the Asklepians and may have referred some of his patients to the temples. There was clearly some integration of these different schools of healing. The Asklepian Temples and their healing methods had disappeared by 500 AD although of all the pagan cults of the time these treatments lasted longer than any of the others into the Christian era. This was because they were enormously popular with the ordinary citizens. With the demise of these healing temples the Greek recognition of the influence of mind and spirit in the healing process was lost to Hippocratic medicine. Although aspects of the Asklepian healing method are seen again in some of the complementary and alternative therapies of today, there is widespread resistance to these ‘soft’ therapies among many ‘mainstream’ medical clinicians. Meanwhile into that ancient Greek culture a new genre of healing literature was appearing. It was being recognized that writing about one’s own afflictions could be a source of comfort for others with similar suffering. This ‘consolatory ministering’ flourished from around the mid fourth century BC to the Renaissance of the fifteenth century.

There were few changes in the basic practice of Hippocratic medicine until in the second century AD the Greek physician and philosopher Galen came on the scene. I shall pick up the story with Galen in my next post... 

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