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Ancient Greeks - How they influenced modern medicine
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Born 460BC - Died 377BC

Hippocrates was born on the island of Kos in about 460 BC

We do not know much about his life as a child but he grew up to be a very intelligent man. He became a scientist, a doctor and a thinker.

The earliest Ancient Greeks thought that illness and disease were caused by the gods, and therefore only the gods could cure them, along with the help of the priests. Hippocrates believed that the work of doctors should be kept separate from the work done by priests.

Many people thought these scientists and philosophers (thinkers) were dangerous and hated them for not honouring the gods.

Hippocrates tried to find out how the body worked and what caused diseases. He said that you could not understand the parts of the body until you understood the whole. He used observation and reason (looking and thinking) as opposed to looking to the gods for answers. He also looked to the patient's environment to find a cure. He was the first Greek to believe that diseases had natural causes, instead of being caused by the gods.

Hippocrates carefully observed his patient's symptoms before making a diagnosis. This might sound obvious to us today but this was a new way of treating people.

So Hippocrates was more scientific. He tried to work out why illnesses happened at certain time of year. He believed that the weather, especially warm or cold winds, could affect people’s health.

Hippocrates also thought that attitude affected your health. Some people today think that this is true. What do you think? Do you think that if you think positively, care for yourself and are cheerful you are more likely to be healthy?

Hippocrates understood that the care you give to patients is really important. If patients felt well looked after they were more likely to get better.

Greek doctors used herbal cures. Many of the plants they used are still used as medicines now. Can you think of any? They carefully noted the effects of different medicines on the patients’ illnesses.

He also recognised that the body had the ability to heal itself.

The doctors would make their medicines in different ways: teas, ointments, tinctures. Some of these were applied to the outside of the body and some taken internally.

Hippocratic doctors saw themselves as a step above other practitioners who still used lucky charms and asked for the help of the gods.

Hippocrates wrote down the first rules of how a doctor should treat a patient. It is called the Hippocratic Oath, which doctors still follow today. Hippocrates taught that doctors should be pleasant; have a cheerful appearance; smell nice; be well nourished; be nicely-scented with a clear complexion as all these make patients feel better

Surgery was rarely used as it was dangerous and patients often got septicaemia or died from shock as it was very painful and they tended to lose a lot of blood.

Hippocrates started a medical school on his home island of Kos. He made his students swear the Hippocratic oath, promising not to harm their patients. Most doctors still swear the Hippocratic oath today.


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Last Updated: 14 September 2011