Greek Physicians Begin Scientific Practice of Medicine

Greek physicians developed the scientific practice of medicine, allowing reason to triumph over superstition in their search for knowledge about disease and its treatment.

Summary of Event

One of the great accomplishments of the ancient Greek world was the development in the late fifth century b.c.e. of the scientific practice of medicine. Doctoring is as old as civilization itself, but only when the Greeks developed a purely rational way of looking at the world did medicine become a science. Hippocrates (c. 460-c. 370 b.c.e.)

Early Greek thought resembles that of other peoples: Illness, like all other facets of human life, was believed to be in the hands of the gods. Two of the brilliant masterpieces of Greek literature, Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e., Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), begin with plagues sent by an angered Apollo. The idea that God is responsible for causing and for curing illness is also found in biblical writings, especially in the New Testament, where among the principal activities of Jesus are the casting out of demons and the healing of the sick. Curative powers were attributed to the pagan gods, and among the most common archaeological finds are votive offerings (many of which are models of the affected parts needing cure) and amulets. As attested by the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus (second century c.e.; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1644), Greeks also believed in the curative power of dreams. These nonscientific medical views were never abandoned by the ancient world but existed side by side with scientific medicine.

The fifty years following the Persian Wars saw spectacular intellectual development in the Greek world. Philosophy, which started with Thales in the preceding century, came into its own. The natural philosophers of Ionia (now the western part of Turkey) sought an explanation of nature that did not rely on supernatural causation. They sought, instead, to show that all nature operated by the same set of physical laws. They offered different solutions to the questions of what the world was made from and how it functioned, and their theories were developed from arbitrary assumptions. Anaximenes of Miletus asserted air to be the basic element; Anaxagoras, a substance of indeterminate nature; Heraclitus of Ephesus, fire; and Empedocles, the four elements air, earth, fire, and water.

Because of the tremendous success of Greek mathematics, and of geometry in particular with its system of deductive reasoning based on very few axioms, there was a tendency among natural philosophers to seek systems of the physical universe that were deductive. Deductive reasoning produces the highest degree of certainty, and Aristotle is typical of the Greeks in affording the prize for scientific knowledge to sciences such as geometry and logic, sciences whose conclusions are reached through deductive reasoning from axioms and definitions.

The results of the natural philosophers, however, were not satisfying: The material world does not yield to deductive reasoning. Medical writers of the fifth century b.c.e. and later very much wanted to separate themselves from the arbitrary axioms of the natural philosophers, and Celsus (fl. c. 178 c.e.) claims that Hippocrates was the first actually to do so. Hippocrates criticizes those physicians who claim that because humans are a unity, they are composed of only one of the four elements. He says that their proofs amount to nothing and that victory in their debates goes to the one with the glibbest tongue. Yet the same author, though attacking others for their lack of evidence, accepts as axiomatic that humans are made of four humours—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, each derived from one of the four elements.

A key feature of Greek medical science is its rejection of gods and magic in the interpretation of disease. In popular Greek language, epilepsy was called the “sacred disease.” The Hippocratic author who wrote the treatise On the Sacred Disease (translated into English in 1923) claims that this disease is no more sacred than any other:

I do not believe that the “Sacred Disease” is any more divine or sacred than any other disease, but, on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause. Nevertheless, because it is completely different from other diseases, it has been regarded as a divine visitation by those who, being only human, view it with ignorance and astonishment.

He continues by attacking as charlatans and quacks those who try to cure the disease by means of charms. He himself explains the disease as resulting from a discharge in the brain, and he supports this theory with the dissection of a goat that had suffered from the same disease. In addition to the physiological explanation, what is remarkable is that the author sees the same laws of nature operative in both humans and goats.

The man most identified with the development of Greek medicine is Hippocrates of Cos, who is said to have established a medical school on his native island. Virtually nothing is known of Hippocrates himself, though he is treated respectfully by writers of his era. Plato refers to him as a typical doctor, and Aristotle calls him the perfect example of a physician. Plato attributes to Hippocrates the revolutionary idea that in order to understand the body, it is necessary to understand it as an organic whole, that is, as a unity whose parts function together. This organic view, however, is not explicitly stated in any of the extant Hippocratic books, which were most likely compiled in the fifth to four century b.c.e. The consensus of scholarly opinion is that there was no single author “Hippocrates.” None of the fifty to seventy surviving books of the so-called Hippocratic corpus agree with the views attributed in antiquity to Hippocrates, and moreover, the contents of these books are often at odds with one another. Nevertheless, even if his actual works are not known, he appears to have been a real person and to have had—if Plato may be credited—a scientific outlook.

One of the important features of Greek medicine is the inquiry into the causes of disease. As in the case of natural philosophy, where a variety of views explained the universe, so in medicine there are various theoretical formulations, ranging from a single unitary cause for all disease to specific causes for each. The author of the Hippocratic work Peri physon (On Breaths; 1923), for example, thinks that because some breathing irregularity accompanies illness, breath is at the root of every disease. On the other hand, the author of Peri archaiēs iētrikēs (Ancient Medicine, 1849) criticizes physicians who do not distinguish between symptoms and causes. He also criticizes those who think that if a disease follows a certain action, the action was the cause of disease—a mistake known in philosophy as the post hoc propter hoc fallacy. An example would be eating a certain food and, when illness followed shortly after, assuming the food to be the cause of the illness.

Another feature of Hippocratic medicine, as detailed in the work Prognostics (translated into English in 1819), was the careful study of the progress of diseases. Once a physician had diagnosed a particular illness, he could tell the patient what to expect in the future as the disease ran its course. The ability to predict was certainly essential in establishing medicine’s status as a science.

Diagnosis and prognostication both incorporate the fundamental principle of Hippocratic medicine that disease is a part of nature and acts in accordance with natural laws. As humans share a common nature and as diseases share a nature that is regular and hence predictable, a science of medicine is possible. For a disease to be treatable, what works for one patient must work for another. Thus, medicine must carefully analyze nature, catalog the types of diseases, and define the appropriate treatment for each. The underlying assumption of ancient medicine, as of modern medicine, is that the body functions best when its nature is maintained. Hence the physician’s job is twofold: First, he should not interfere with the body’s nature but should maintain it by means of preventive medicine, the principal forms of which are diet and exercise; second, when the patient is already ill, the physician, using therapeutic medicine, should restore the body to its nature.


From its birth in fifth century b.c.e. Greece, the scientific practice of medicine has been continually alive in the West. The centuries following Hippocrates saw advances in anatomy, as post mortem dissections became common. Specialized work in gynecology, orthopedics, and other branches of medicine continued and flourished. Later, in the Roman period, there followed major advances in public health, and the Romans bequeathed to posterity insights about hygiene, sanitation, water supplies, and public health.

Further Reading

  • King, Helen. Greek and Roman Medicine. London: Bristol Classical, 2001. An examination of the practice and science of medicine during Greek and Roman times. Bibliography and index.
  • Lloyd, G. E. R., and Nathan Sivin. The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. The authors compare and contrast the approaches to medicine and science in ancient Greece and China. Bibliography and index.
  • Longrigg, James. Greek Medicine: From the Heroic to the Hellenistic Age. New York: Routledge, 1998. A source book on ancient Greek medicine. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Longrigg, James. Greek Rational Medicine: Philosophy and Medicine from Alcmaeon to the Alexandrians. New York: Routledge, 1993. Longrigg examines the part that philosophy and rationality played in ancient Greek medicine. Bibliography and index.
  • Magner, Lois. A History of Medicine. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1992. Magner’s work offers a fine introduction to Greek contributions to the study of medicine.
  • Sargent, Frederick. Hippocratic Heritage: A History of Ideas About Weather and Human Health. New York: Pergamon Press, 1982. Sargent focuses on the legacy of Hippocrates and his impact on modern medical science.

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