History

Greek doctors

The ground-breaking teachings of Hippocrates were followed closely by the doctors of his time, and have influenced doctors from his day right up to the present.

Overview

Head of a statue of Hippocrates (c.460-370 BC), the ancient Greek doctor and philosopher.

Head of a statue of Hippocrates (c.460-370 BC), the ancient Greek doctor and philosopher.

Ordinary Greek people would often go to the asklepion [Asklepion: Healing centre of the ancient Greeks, based around a belief in the god Asklepios. People would stay there when they were ill. ] when they were sick. Things began to change when Greek philosophers and doctors made the critical breakthrough in realising that diseases have natural, rather than spiritual, causes.

The most famous Greek doctor was Hippocrates of Kos. He wrote: "Sickness is not sent by the gods or taken away by them. It has a natural basis. If we can find the cause, we can find the cure."

Thus the Greeks developed the first rational system of medicine.

Greek doctors soon became extremely skilled and professional. They took the Hippocratic Oath, which bound them to keep people's confidences secret, live a good and holy life and not to give poison. Greek doctors were well trained ('from childhood'), made visits, had a good bedside manner and were careful in their dealings with their patients.

Source analysis: Writings of Hippocrates

Greek doctors

A doctor must be able to remember all the drugs and their uses. You must get your medicine ready in good time. You must visit your patients often and be careful when you examine them. When you enter a patient's room, be calm and remember your bedside manners. Sometimes the patient may need telling off, sometimes comforting.

Hippocrates, 'On Behaviour' (500BC)

The Hippocratic Oath

I swear by Apollo, Asklepios and by all the gods that I will keep this oath. I will use treatment to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgement but never with a view to injury or wrongdoing. I will not give poison to anybody. I will be pure and holy in my life and practice. I will keep secret anything I see or hear professionally which ought not to be told.

From Hippocrates

Revision tip and answer preparation

Revision tip

'Greek doctors developed the first rational system of medicine' ['rational' means: based on logic and common sense].

Explain this sentence by making a list of all the advances made by Greek doctors. As you read, note down when you can confirm one of the following possible comments about Greek doctors:

  • they knew about the inner workings of the body
  • they developed clinical observation
  • they studied the natural history of diseases
  • they realised that diseases had natural causes and cures
  • they developed the theory of the Four Humours and the 'use of opposites'
  • they wrote and used medical textbooks
  • they were professional and took the Hippocratic Oath
  • they were skilled at setting broken bones and slipped discs
  • they knew hundreds of herbal remedies
  • they had a reassuring 'bedside manner'
  • they developed a Programme for Health for personal health and hygiene.

Answer preparation

As part of your revision, think about the arguments and facts you would use to explain:

  1. How Greek medicine reflected the ideas and practices of Greek civilisation.
  2. What caused people to be healthy or unhealthy in Greek times.
  3. What ideas the Greeks had about the causes and treatment of illness and injuries.
  4. Who provided medical care in Greek times.
  5. How much (or whether) medicine changed in Greek times, and what the main turning points were.
  6. Why some diagnoses and treatments changed while others remained the same.
  7. How (or whether) the process of change was influenced by:
    • individuals
    • the government
    • science and technology
    • war
    • attitudes and beliefs in society
    • trade
  8. To what extent developments in medical understanding and practice in Greek times affected people's lives.

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