Hippocrates (c. 460-c. 370 BCE)

Hippocrates.

Hippocrates.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Hippocrates of Kos was an Ancient Greek physician and founder of the Hippocratic School of Medicine. He is considered the father of Western medicine.

Hippocrates is thought to have been born on the Greek island of Kos in about 460 BC, during the Classical period. According to his first biographer, Soranus of Ephesus, writing five centuries later, he learned medicine from his father and grandfather, and he probably studied at the Asclepion of Kos, where he was taught by Herodicus of Selymbria. The only mention of him during his lifetime is by his contemporary Plato, who suggests that he is famous as a physician and refers to him as an ‘Asclepiad’, that is, someone descended from a family of well-known physicians.

The Hippocratic School which he founded was based on rather passive treatment, and focused on prognosis over diagnosis, and was able to treat many illnesses successfully. There was a strong emphasis on observation, documentation and overall discipline, even down to the length of a physician’s fingernails.

The collection of around 70 medical works attributed to Hippocrates and his followers, known as the Hippocratic Corpus, contains the first descriptions of many diseases, conditions and treatments. However, much was unknown at a time when human dissection was not practised, and any detailed medical theory is rare in these works. The Corpus also includes the Hippocratic oath, which new doctors through the ages have sworn in many variations, promising to commit to high ethical standards in medicine.

Hippocrates is often seen as the first person to identify diseases as having natural rather than superstitious causes, and separated medicine from associated disciplines such as religion, theurgy and philosophy. This was not to deny their importance, however; the Hippocratic oath itself required new physicians to swear by various gods of healing.

The legacy of Hippocrates was the transformation of the practice of medicine. In the centuries after his death, however, he was held in such great esteem that further advancement was slow to be attempted.