Hippocrates of Kos: Forging Clinical Medicine Through Spirituality, Ethics, and Dogmatism

Hippocrates, Greek Physician

Guest Post by Aristeidis G

Hippocrates of Kos: Forging Clinical Medicine Through Spirituality, Ethics, and Dogmatism

“Natural forces within each and every one of us are the factual healers of illness, and the ultimate contributing factor to getting well”- medical dogma attributed to Hippocrates.

What makes a man become a legend through the eons? What scriptures and narratives, often on the realm of sorcery, tradition, and mythology, carry the legacy of a healer whose philosophy on human nature changed the world?

As the tale unfolds, lots of questions seek answers about the life and works of Hippocrates, a man whose doctrine on health, illness, and medical ethics reformed the way people saw their inner selves, natural remedies, and divine providence.

Hippocrates, Asclepius

Formally known as Hippocrates Asclepiades (460-377?  BCE), fables place him as a descendant of Apollo (the oracle god), Asclepios (god of medicine), and in the family line of the hero and semi-god Hercules. Isn’t this enough to become a legend?

Hippocrates is alleged to have been born into a wealthy family, the son of Praxithea and Heracleides, a physician at the Kos Asklepeion healing temple and health spa, which also served as a place of worship of Asclepios, Iaso (goddess of cures), Panacea (goddess of remedy), Hebe (goddess of youth eternal) Hygeia (goddess of sanitation), and other deities associated with medicine and healing.

After acquiring a solid education on the classical fundamental subjects (reading, writing, and the knowledge of numbers), Hippocrates went on to a typical secondary school, before learning about medicine from his father, as well as fellow physician Herodicus. It seems that, as a young man, he was an erudite scholar and intellectual, with a calling for the art of healing. As time passed, medicine became his vocation.

Knowledge of Healing

Historians believe that Hippocrates travelled extensively throughout the Greek mainland, and possibly Anatolia (Asia Minor), Babylonia, and Egypt (where he visited and perhaps studied at the temple of Amenhotep, chief priest of Amun-Ra), learning about local practices of medicine.

Hippocrates soon realised that since the beginning of time health, vigour and well-being had been of paramount value to human beings. However, he found that the widespread belief in magic and religion as paragons on the effectiveness of the healing process made it almost impossible to separate the facts from superstition, and adequately assess one’s medical acumen.

Living during the era of Pericles, with Kos being under the control of Athens, Greek physician Hippocrates was, in effect, a contemporary of Aristotle (teacher of King Alexander of Macedonia) and Plato (faithful follower of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle), whose philosophy seems to have affected him deeply. Legendary remains the medical aid Hippocrates and his students offered during the catastrophic plague of Athens.

Initially seeing no need of metaphysical or supernatural intervention for the processes of prognosis, diagnosis, cure and therapy to function effectively, Hippocrates argued that the laws of Nature that apply on all living beings offer adequate logical explanations for matters of health or ailment.

The fundamental elements of Hippocratic theories probably derive from observations made in Egypt.

Even though practiced by priests and witchdoctors, Egyptian remedies and healing practices were impressively effective for the time. And despite being quite secretive about the mummification process, Egyptian artisans obviously knew more about human anatomy than any other people in the known world.

Healing in ancient Egypt


This, of course, changed with Alexander’s campaign to India, but this was much later.

The first conclusion that Hippocrates reached from his experiences in Egypt was that faith in your therapist, positive perception of the treatment validity, and trust in the providence of the gods had, more often than not, a placebo effect on patients.

To put it simply, people got better just by believing they would, and the catalyst was as strong as the sacred dimension of their spirituality.

The therapeutic power of the placebo effect is universally acknowledged and still studied today.

Whether Hippocrates and his followers were pious or not will forever remain a mystery, however, the Hippocratic ethics governing medical practices remain ironclad through the centuries, setting the boundaries of scientific discipline.

One of the things Hippocrates is known for nowadays is the oath that students had to take before starting their medical training. The Hippocratic Oath starts as follows:

“By Apollo (the physician), by Asclepius, by Hygeia, by Panacea, and all the gods and goddesses, together as witnesses, I hereby vow…

In the context of the oath, it is clearly stated that those practicing the Art of Medicine will under no circumstances perform or in any way encourage or facilitate euthanasia or abortion. Invasive surgery is strongly discouraged unless deemed absolutely essential and otherwise bearing no threat to the patient’s life.

The clause of surgery almost immediately lost its value, as progress on the specific knowledge of human anatomy (as opposed to that coming from dissecting animals) soon revolutionised the way physicists operated on people; such radicals were Herophilos (an Alexandrian physician believed to be the first anatomist using human cadavers), Erasistratus of Ceos (founder of the Alexandria school of anatomy), and later Galen ( a philosopher and medical researcher pivoting  from empirical to rationalist medical sects). As for abortion and euthanasia, these are bioethical issues still strongly debated well into the 21st century.

The bulk of the teachings attributed to Hippocrates and his followers, although significantly varying in content and style, and in fact being of unknown authorship, comprise no less than 60 ancient Greek medical works known as the Hippocratic Corpus, depicting principles and practices of Hippocratic medicine.

Bloodletting with leeches in Ancient GreeceAdopting a holistic approach to the diagnosis of sickness and treatment of injury, Hippocrates systemised and developed his Humourism or Humouralism theory. Although considered redundant and obsolete in modern medicine, the principles of the body fluid balance theory stood strong until the late 19th century, allowing bloodletting, and the use of suction cups to be an integral part of Western medicine therapeutic practices.

Alternative medicine uses these methods even today and bloodletting with leeches (leeching) is a fine example of such practices.

What Hippocrates saw was that when fluids extracted from a human body were left to settle in a large glass vessel, they segmented in four parts. The heaviest substance was black bile (Greek: μέλαινα χολή), presumed today to be blood clots. Then there was blood (Greek: αἷμα), possibly red cells, followed by phlegm (Greek: φλέγμα), and yellow bile (Greek: ξανθη χολή), most probably blood plasma.

Hippocrates believed that for a body to be healthy, the four humours that make up the nature of this body were to be in balanced proportions of compounding, amount and strength, particular to each individual.

Accordingly, the proto-psychological theory of the four temperaments was developed, defining four fundamental personality types: melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, and choleric, with the likelihood of mixtures between the types.

Not much of the information deriving from Hippocratic humourism theories is of any use to us today, since Man’s insatiable quest for knowledge, supported by the findings of the almost overwhelming advances of technology, has brought contemporary medical research to entirely different levels.

Still, the dogmatic philosophy Hippocrates imposed on the cure of physical, mental, and psychological discomfort met no adversary, and remained unopposed until the foundation of the Alexandrian Empiric School of medicine, centuries later.

At the forefront of scientific attentiveness, healing the entirety of the human self, consisting of body, mind- conscious and unconscious-together with the immaterial, incorporeal, and yet largely undetectable essence of a living being called the psyche (ψυχή) remains the ultimate challenge for Medical science through the millennia.


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