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History

Greek knowledge about the body and disease

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Source analysis and question

Source A: The four humours

Man's body has blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These make up his body and through them he feels illness or enjoys health. When all the humours are properly balanced and mingled, he feels the most perfect health. Illness occurs when one of the humours is in excess, or is reduced in amount, or is entirely missing from the body.

Hippocrates, 'On the Constitution of Man' (c.500BC)

Hippocrates was a real doctor, but most of the books ascribed to him were written by his disciples. (To help you remember the four humours, along with blood and phlegm, think of yellow bile as vomit, and black bile as diarrhoea.)

Source B: The plague

I shall describe what the plague was like ... At the beginning the doctors were unable to treat the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods. Equally useless were prayers in the temples, consulting the oracles and suchlike.

Thucydides, 'History of the Peloponnesian War' (c.500BC)

Source C: Silenus

Silenus had become overtired from drinking and exercising at the wrong time and had caught a fever. He began with pains in the stomach, heavy head and a stiff neck.

1st day: he vomited, his urine was black, he was thirsty, tongue dry, no sleep at night.

2nd day: slightly delirious.

6th day: slight perspiration about the head, head and feet cold and black, no discharge from the bowel, no urine, acute fever.

8th day: cold sweat all over, red rashes, severe diarrhoea, urine bitter and passed painfully, hands and feet cold.

11th day: he died breathing slow and heavy, stomach throbbing. He was about 20 years old.'

Hippocrates, 'On Epidemics' (c.500BC)

Question

Once you have read the sources about Greek physiology, look for evidence that the Greeks:

  1. believed in the theory of the 'four humours'
  2. believed in the 'balance of opposites'
  3. did not think the gods caused disease
  4. believed that an imbalance of the humours caused disease
  5. studied the 'natural history' of different diseases
  6. wrote down what they knew in order to pass on their knowledge

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Answer

Evidence that the Greeks:

  1. believed in the theory of the 'four humours'
    • 'blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile ... make up his body.'
  2. believed in the 'balance of opposites'
    • 'When all the humours are properly balanced and mingled ...'
  3. did not think the gods caused disease
    • '...unable to treat the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods ...'
    • 'Equally useless were prayers.'
  4. believed that an imbalance of the humours caused disease
    • ' ...through them he feels illness or enjoys health. Illness occurs when one of the humours is in excess, or is reduced in amount, or is entirely missing from the body ...'
  5. studied the 'natural history' of different diseases
    • Silenus: 'He began with ... 1st day ... 2nd day' etc
  6. wrote down what they knew in order to pass on their knowledge
    • Hippocrates, 'On the Constitution of Man'

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