1.30.2011

Hippocrates, and How Science is Born

(Short Summary for those who do not know: Hippocrates is widely considered a forefather of medicine. His collected writings include the Hippocratic Oath, variations of which are still administered by pretty much every medical institution on earth, but also include a broad array of observations and advice on a wide variety of topics of health. Hippocrates was usually thought of as a sort of wise, practical country doctor, who did not get cauhgt in esoterics, but who nonetheless laid the groundwork for medicine and medical theory)

I entered reading Hippocrates fully expecting a laugh. This medicine is OLD. This is before there was germ theory, before there was an understanding of the circulation of blood, before the advent of sanitization, and still in the depths of the four humors theory of physical health, sort of one step above magic.

And in many ways the book did not let me down. A few choice exerts:


  • "A woman does not become ambidextrous" (but men do!)
  • "If you wish to ascertain if a woman be with child, give her hydromel (mead) to drink when she is going to sleep, and has not taken supper, and if she be seized with tormina (acute pain) in the belly, she is with child, but otherwise, she is not pregnant"
  • "A woman with child, if it be a male, has a good color, but if a female, she has a bad color."
  • "[Delirium and tumors] more frequently occur on odd than on even days"
I'm guessing here, but I'm not sure these statements were rigorously tested before being accepted as fact. Other things were just horrifying - though possibly effective treatments given the constraints of the times. And the long descriptions of the various colors, textures, smells, consistencies, etc of urine, bile, feces, sweat, and mucus were, if certainly indicative of a highly observant mind, not the most exciting way to spend one's evening.

But, I DID learn things from Hippocrates, this is what really surprised me. In the first case, he says a number of extremely keen-minded things, things we forgot often today:

  1. Many physicians seem to me to be in the same plights as bad pilots, who, if they commit mistakes while conducting the ship in a calm do not expose themselves, but when a storm and violent hurrican overtake them, they then, from their ignorance and mistakes, are discovered to be what they are, by all men, namely, in losing their ship. 
  2. The vulgar, indeed, do not recognize the difference between [charlatans] and their common attendants, and are rather disposted commend extraordinary remedies
  3. The [medical] art consists in three things: the disease, the patient, and the physician. The physician is the servant of nature, and the patient must combat the disease along with the physician.
  4. I look upon it as being a great part of the art to be able to judge properly of that which has been written (good advice, in fact, for those reading Hippocrates...)
My favorite quote, though, and the one that sums up how I felt about the book is this: 
I say we ought not to reject the ancient medicine as if it were not and had not been properly foudned because it did attain accuracy in all things, but rather... to receive it and admire its discoveries, made from a state of great ignorance, and as having been well and properly made.
What was really awe-inspiring about Hippocrates was to realize how like a scientist he really DID try to be with so very little. Hippocrates throughout the book is basically making up the scientific method out of his head (making mistakes, of course along the way), when it was quite easy to make a living in his field by simply making stuff up, lying, and making excuses for your failures (he even acknowledges this last to be the case, and offers a very compelling argument for both education and for the institution of laws against malpractice - what doctor is doing THAT today?). Some of his observations, from the vantage point of a society that has many, many giants upon whose shoulders we stand, are really very clever: He notices, for instance, that eunuchs do not tend to go bald, or that sneezing can cure hiccups (I had never noticed it, but it really is true!), or that obesity tends to reduce life-span. He goes into great detail not only about how one ought to relocate almost any dislocated joint in the body, but also why his method will work better than others of the time. And all of this he points out with only Aristotles vague, ethereal theory of humors and elements, and a history of glorified magicians to back his practice up.

One thing this DID point out to me that I thoguht interesting is that we (quite rightly) do not use Hippocrates as a medical reference anymore. He's simply out of date. He wouldn't be upset about this (and the mistake of much of the middle ages in fact was to assume that these proto writers were writing inspired things that must be followed to the letter, that wisdom is immutable). However, we still think of, for instance, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle as being immutably, eternally valuable, and not simply as a building block. Reading Hippocrates, one is naturally led to see his mistakes. But when we are taught ancient philosophers or literary writers, we are taught to gloss over or contextualize their out-of-date parts and respect the underlying wisdom of what they were saying - the same, but more extreme, could be applied to scripture and it's study in modern religion. I'm still mulling over what this difference means - is 'progress' shaped differently in fields that are not science? OR is it simply that we want to believe people then knew something we don't know now? I don't know.

5 comments:

Trapunto said...

There are a lot of examples of the quack-type physicians Hippocrates hates in Robert Graves novel I, Claudius (which I'm listening to at the moment). The successful ones seem to have been a lot like the purveyors of Hollywood fad treatments, only no accountability whatever. Hangers-on of the rich. Also usually Greek. Also very useful for administering poison when you considerately loan your personal physician to a mildly ill frenemy. "Oh, well, it was so quick at the end, even my clever Greek could do nothing for him."

What I'm getting from what you say is that there is only so much for a casual modern to get from Hippocrates. Do you feel it repaid your time in entertainment/information?

Jason Gignac said...

I have not read I, Claudius, but I certainly got the impression that a lot of doctors must fit that cast - and how much that frustrated Hippocrates. I've wondered the same thing about science in the age of, say Galileo, if the people who were really trying to learn things got drowned out by people trying to impress a benefactor or support a church dogma. I know I've heard this happens in literary scholarship today, sometimes. It was very informative, but VERY hard work to read. I probably would not have finished except that it was for the classics circuit and I promised, but I'm glad I read it! I've been trying to read some of the 'Canon' of literature and science, because so much of the things I love later are informed by it - sort of trying to retroactively get the education of the people I was educated on...

Shannyn said...

This is very interesting. I've never even considered reading Hippocrates before, probably because as you mention, he's not one of the more modernly read authors from that time period.

I know science professors who enjoy reading older, monumental pieces of scientific writings (Pastuer, Koch, Avery and MacLeod, for example). But they're much more modern (and based on more than observational guesswork) than what I imagine Hippocrates to be.

Curious what edition you read, was it called the Hippocratic Writings?

Rebecca Reid said...

fascinating post. Definitely I'm not going to be reading Hippocrates myself. I think the reason why Hippocrates is considered out of date but not Aristotle is that Aristotle was not working with measurement. He knew he was omitting it. Although I haven't read his biological works, the VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION I read about Aristotle talked about his biology as observation only. He didn't like math and measurement or mention them in his writing.

It sounds like Hippocrates, on the other hand, wanted to come to the bottom of truth in terms of the human body. He would have loved to have the ability to measure and he was trying to apply a scientific method. From what you said, it sounds like he'd be overjoyed to learn the facts of science as they are today.

Again, haven't really read either, but that's just the impression I get from what you've written.

Jason Gignac said...

ms Shannyn - yes that is what it was called - I bought a set of the old Brittanica Great Books Serra at a library sale not long ago and it came with it. A number of more modern science works came in it too - Darwin I read not long ago and it was really interesting, I want o go back and read Descent of Man

Ms Reid - I wasn't so concerned about aristotles science writing, which I imagine would be less read now, more the philosophy. Musing over why science can become outdated but philosophy doesn't. Though notably, math doesn't either i guess: Euclid is as true today as he ever was!