Ancient Greek Medicine


While Greek Medicine particularly from the 5th century B.C onwards, increasingly used scientific method to develop cures, there still however remained people that considered medicine to be a religion. The ancient Greeks (Hellenic) made important discoveries about the human body and health, so by the sixth century BC, medicinal practices focused largely on a more clinical approach involving observation. Their discoveries were made by firstly studying the human anatomy using dissection and vivisection, finding ways to heal using things such as plants and herbs, then finally practising surgery on the human body using different instruments.


Before the scientific method developed, most people still saw medicine as a religion, and believed that superstitions, evil spirits and punishments caused illness from the gods. The best-known ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, made several important medical discoveries in Ancient Greece. He was born on the island of Cos, living from 460 B.C. - 377 B.C., and is revered as the \'Father of Medicine\'. He was the first man to make medicine a profession and to see medicine as a science and not a religion. Hippocrates devised an oath, which every new doctor still swears to this day.


Hippocrates and his followers looked at the cause of the disease rather than the symptoms. Hippocrates saw that diseases came from natural causes; he discovered that thought came from the brain and not from the heart, and he saw that the body needed to be treated as a whole and not just a series of parts. The theory of the four humours originated from the works of Aristotle. The idea of Humours is usually credited to Claudius Galen, a Greek physician of the second century A.D. But although he organized the idea more accessibly, he was probably not its creator. Centuries earlier, in the fourth century B.C., Hippocrates wrote of the bodily humours in his Hippocratic Corpus.


The physician believed that the body was made up of four components or “four humours”. The four components are: Blood formed at the heart – Spring – Air, Phlegm in the brain – Winter – Water, Yellow Bile in the liver – Summer – Fire and Black Bile in the spleen – Autumn – Earth. Hippocrates argued that when these four fluids were out of balance disease occurred. The ideal place for a good balance of humours was (naturally) found in the centre of Greek culture, namely in the Aegean and in and around Athens. The components were each linked to a different season, these physicians believed that some diseases were more common in different seasons e.g. fevers were common in Summer/Fire.


Doctors used an important practice called vivisection. Even though this was a cruel practice, medicine couldn’t be as advanced as it is today without it. Vivisection – the act of cutting open live animals for medical research (Collins Australian Dictionary 2004). In Ancient times as well as animals, this also involved cutting open humans. Vivisection and dissection were the ways in which anatomists discovered the anatomy of the human body and the way it functioned. Vivisection was an extremely emotional issue; people didn’t believe that cutting up a human being whilst dead, let alone alive was respectful, so it was condemned in some countries. However, during the Ptolemaic age in Egypt it became possible for Greek and other anatomists to dissect and vivisect in a free and unrestricted environment. This change in attitude was due to the philosophical teachings of Aristotle. The ready supply of criminals able to be used for vivisection also made this controversial practice possible.


Aristotle never possessed any inclination to open a human being, although he performed many dissections and vivisections on animals seen as ‘near to man’, these being Barbary apes, dogs and pigs. The only chances of his observations came from a wounded mutilated person. Via vivisection, anatomists found that the heart pumps blood, humans breathe through their lungs, they cut flesh from animals and watched it move independently from the heart as proof of arteries and discovered the nervous system from live brains.


Greeks knew that health and fitness (philosophy regimen) affected their quality of life. Most people became concerned with the amounts of exercise they had, what they ate, drank and made sure they had enough sleep. Ancient Greeks started healing with religious methods and then