04 January 2018

Healthcare Through Time | Part 2 - Ancient Greece

In the second part of our Healthcare through time series we go back 2,800 years to a time of myths, gods and the Ancient Greeks, the forefathers of modern western medicine.

‘A doctor is worth many men’ – Homer’s the Iliad

Asclepius the God of Healing

The Ancient Greeks revered healers so much that they had a god that represented medicine and healing. According to myth the god Asclepius was the son of Apollo and was taught the art of healing by the centaur Chiron. Asclepius was so effective at healing the sick that Zeus, the king of the gods feared that he might make humans immortal. As a result, Zeus killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Homer’s the Iliad, however, takes a less supernatural approach to Asclepius as it describes him as a highly skilled physician who served in the Trojan war.

Today, the symbol of Asclepius is often used in the medical sector as it was he who wielded a staff with a serpent coiled around it. Asclepius staff is considered to be the only true symbol of medicine.

Medical Advancements

Unlike the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks did not solely believe that evil spirits were the cause of illness. They still believed in their gods, but over time science began to take over when trying to explain the reasons for and solutions to sickness. Through experimentation, Greek scholars developed several theories about sickness, the most famous of which was Humouris which referred to blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Consequently, poor health was deemed to be a consequence of an imbalance in these four Humours.

Greek Physicians also believed that a patient’s environment played an important part in healthcare. They recognised that various diseases occurred in certain environments and realised the importance of a clean water supply and its influence on the health of the local populace.

This is Sparta

Greek physicians also developed advancements in surgery thanks to the warlike ways of the ancient Greek city-states. Wars between them were a regular occurrence, but no state was so feared as Sparta. A culture of warriors trained from birth, they recognised the need to keep their soldiers healthy and were some of the first peoples to establish a basic form of professional healthcare. With all of the fighting, Greek doctors learnt a lot about the human anatomy from wounded soldiers. Surgery on civilians, however, was rare due to the associated risks, but wounded warriors were deemed acceptable to operate on.

Hippocrates

We can’t talk about ancient Greek medicine without mentioning Hippocrates. He is often revered as the ‘father of modern medicine’ thanks to his contributions to the world of medicine and for founding one of the world’s first medical schools. A version of the Hippocratic oath is still in use to this day.  

Five amazing facts

  • According to the writings of Plato and Hippocrates, ancient Greek doctors believed that a woman’s womb was a separate creature with a mind of its own.

  • Half of all ancient Greek children died before they reached the age of 10 and 1 out of 3 babies died before reaching 1 year of age.

  • Ancient Greek doctors were the first to realise the importance of the environment to a person’s health.
  • The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of seventy early medical textbooks and inspired many medical practitioners throughout the ages. 
  • The physicians Herophilus and Erasistratus performed their experiments upon criminals given to them by the Ptolemaic kings. They dissected them whilst they were still alive!