The Great Hippocrates, Father of (Modern) Medicine

A THM Feature Article

TheGreatHippocratesThe ageless teachings of Hippocrates, the great physician of ancient Greece (460 BC-370 BC), have traveled a long and winding trail.

In the early days of his medical deductions, his ‘upstart’ conclusions regarding natural preventive medicine was accepted by many he helped and taught but opposed by authorities, who considered themselves mediators and spokesmen for their many gods, including those who ruled health. Hippocrates even endured a 20-year prison sentence because of his belief that diseases were caused naturally and not as a result of superstition and gods.

Advocates of his medical philosophy came and went through the ages—from reverence to the extent that it was believed that his teachings could not be improved upon, to indifference and even contempt.

Galen, the last great Greek physician (AD 129-AD 200), perpetuated Hippocratic medicine for a short time, moving both forward and backward, then for hundreds of years, the clean and gentle clinical practices of Hippocrates were mostly abandoned.

It is to the Arabs, noted for the finest medical schools of the early Middle Ages, that we owe the renewal and progression of Hippocratic teachings. Indeed it was through the spirit of inquiry in the East that the principles of Hippocratic medicine—and the enduring Hippocratic Oath written as a guideline for medical ethics—survived the long period of medical decline, principally through the writings of Arabian authorities. This medical scholarship was noted in Marco Polo’s classic travel journals.

It was not until after the European Renaissance that Hippocratic methods were revived in Europe.

For a man considered to be ‘The Father of Medicine,’ verifiable information on Hippocrates is amazingly scant. Even some of the volumes of writings attributed to him may have actually been compiled by his numerous students and followers who enthusiastically embraced his teachings. Historians agree that even if his treatises were not penned by his own hand, they faithfully recorded his opinions and conclusions. What is known is that Hippocrates, a contemporary of Socrates, was born on the Aegean Island of Cos into a family of doctors, and because of his family’s wealth he enjoyed a fine education and excelled in writing, mathematics, music, poetry, philosophy and athletics. He traveled widely, taking his teachings into many surrounding areas. He had two sons and a son-in-law who were among his most faithful medical students.

While in prison Hippocrates wrote a number of medical treatises such as The Complicated Body, encompassing many of the things about the body we know to be true today. Medicine at the time of Hippocrates knew little about anatomy and physiology because of the Greek taboo forbidding the dissection of humans.

Nevertheless, through observation, touch, prognosis and gentle patient treatment, Hippocrates concluded and taught basics such as, “Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease,” and “Walking is man’s best medicine.” So powerful was his argument and his successful results with patients that he succeeded in separating the discipline of medicine from religion and philosophy with his persevering insistence that disease was not a punishment inflicted by the gods, but largely the product of environmental factors, genetics, and/or bad diet and unwise or unfortunate living habits and conditions.

During his long life, Hippocrates went on to become the most famous physician and teacher of medicine of his time. He was a mighty ambassador for advanced medical treatment, his teachings, compassion and giant intellect prevailing against the mighty infrastructure of Greece. He and his followers founded the Hippocratic School of Medicine, revolutionizing the practice of medicine in ancient Greece. The school was the pioneer in mandating the clinical doctrines of observation and documentation by recording findings and their medicinal methods in a clear and objective manner so that they could be passed down and employed by other physicians.

This documentation consisted of detailed, regular notes of all symptoms including complexion, pulse, fever, changes in the feel of organs, movement, skin color, eyes and excretions. Hippocrates regarded excretions as an extremely important indication of an efficiently functioning body, saying, “In proportion to what he eats, an individual should have evacuations twice or thrice a day, more copiously in the morning.”

Hippocratic medicine was humble, his therapeutic approach based on “the healing power of nature.” His treatments were based on easing this natural process, using specialized medicine and drugs only reluctantly and sparingly, in the fear that they might do harm (part of the Hippocratic oath is ‘do no harm’).

In general, Hippocratic medicine was kind to the patient, gentle, with emphasis on keeping the patient clean and sterile. The Hippocratic work ‘On the Physician’ recommends that the physician always be well-kept, honest, calm, understanding and serious, paying close attention to his patient and all aspects of his practice, including lighting, personnel, instruments and positioning of the patient. The physician was even to keep his fingernails clean and to a precise length (teachings that were lost for hundreds of years).

Hippocrates and his followers were the first to describe and treat many diseases and medical conditions:

• Clubbing of the fingers (sometimes called Hippocratic fingers), an important diagnostic sign in chronic lung disease, lung cancer and cyanotic heart disease.

• Ailments of the human rectum, including Hemorrhoids. His tools (such as the rectal speculum still in use) and other treatments, constitute the earliest recorded reference to the science of endoscopy.

• Symptomatology, surgical treatment and prognosis for suppuration of the lining of the chest cavity—teachings that remain relevant to pulmonary medicine and surgery today.

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, notes that “Hippocrates was the first documented chest surgeon and his findings are still valid.”

According to the International Hippocratic Foundation, Hippocrates’ medical storehouse included honey from his beehives, an olive orchard for olive oil and a garden of approximately 254 other select herbs and foods that he used for prevention and treatment. They included carrots, beets, parsley, alfalfa, sesame, chamomile, cumin, saffron, poppies, milk thistle, oregano, hibiscus, thyme, garlic, onions, figs, and many others, some of whose medicinal benefits are detailed in articles on this website.

One of the most enduring quotes attributed to Hippocrates is, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” He believed that many chronic diseases were the result of consuming unwise, excessive or unnatural substances that the body was not equipped to deal with. He wrote, “I would give great praise to the physician whose mistakes are small, for perfect accuracy is seldom to be seen…bad and commonplace physicians, when they treat men who have no serious illness, may commit great mistakes….”

Some of his commonsense observations include:

• Growing bodies have the most innate heat; therefore they require the most food.

• Bodies not properly cleansed, the more you nourish, the more you injure.

• Both sleep and insomnolency, when immoderate, are bad.

• Spontaneous lassitude indicates disease.

• Persons who are very fat are apt to die earlier than those who are slender.

• Idleness and lack of occupation tend—nay are dragged—towards evil.

And, of special interest to some among us……

• It is better that flatulence should be passed than that it should be retained!

Today we have come full circle, from the herb gardens of Hippocrates, to genetically modified freak foods and thousands of medical practitioners dispensing questionable and often harmful pharmaceutical drugs like candy.

According to Hippocrates, “Foolish the doctor who despises knowledge acquired by the ancients.” Fortunately, a growing number of doctors, scientists, nutritionists and individuals are re-discovering the ancient use of many herbs and foods that were recognized to be nutritionally and medically beneficial. Best of all, unlike days of yore, scientists are able to identify the connection of those foods to the harmonious natural healing effects they have on the various intricate processes of the human body.

Now all we need to do is de-fang the profiteering pharmaceuticals, the Monsantos and their GMOs—along with their coercive handmaidens among the government agencies—and return to genuine choice and food freedom. If we don’t, the health future of the western world, with its epidemics of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and autism, along with tens of thousands of deaths annually from unwise or excessive use of prescription drugs, looks pretty bleak. As our ancient medical hero states, “A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings, and learn how by his own thought to derive benefit from his illnesses.”

Maybe our medical establishment should consider combining the genuinely miraculous advances made in medicine with “knowledge acquired by the ancients”—such as a Hippocratic herb garden.  Like the Greeks of old, we would all benefit by a Hippocratic ‘revolution’ embracing the concept of “do no harm.”


Sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, International Hippocratic Foundation,, Encyclopedia of World Biographies,,,, Britannica Great Books, Vol. 10, Hippocrates/Galen.


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