Someone once said that all we possess we owe either to nature or to the ancient Greeks. It’ certainly true in the case of medicine and healing arts. Hippocrates, Father of Medicine, taught us how to use nature as healer. But, it didn’t begin or end with Hippocrates. About 2,000 BC various tribes known as Greeks began settling on the Aegean islands, the Mediterranean coast, and the mainland. Less superstitious than the Egyptians or Babylonians and up until the 5th century BC Greeks had more faith in baths, dieting, massage, and exercise. However, even though the Greeks were less superstitious than the Egyptians and Babylonians, the doctors seemed to have had faith in spirits, shamans, and exorcisms. But it all changed with Hippocrates who, perceptively, was more intellectual, having closely studied Pythagoras’s writings and disciples like the physician Alcmaeon (flourished c. 520 BC), who judged that the brain was the seat of intellect. He located and identified the optic nerve, showed the differences between arteries and veins, and discovered the Eustachian tubes that an Italian anatomist 2000 years later got the credit for.
Asclepios, who in myth is classified as a god, had two daughters, Hygeia (health) and Panacea (Cure-all). There are shrines dedicated to him in Cos and Epidavros. People came from all over Greece and beyond, seeking cures for ailments with practices like minor surgeries and natural sources such as herbs. Many, to be sure, found cures. But, Hippocrates believed that disease was the result of natural causes rather than supernatural causes. That annoyed the witch doctors, the opportunistic sorcerers, and the exploiting priests. His phrases were amazingly wise, having said, “One person’s food is another’s poison” – which meant he knew allergies existed. And, “Medicines should be disassociated from the studies of theology and philosophy” – which negated the above wise guys. “Do not disturb a patient either during or after a crisis, and try no experiments, neither with purges nor diuretics.”
What is amazing to me is that he realized that certain illnesses seem to occur at certain seasons. He said, “winter can bring pleurisy, pneumonia, colds and sore throats, dizziness and apoplexy.” He launched modern medicine more than 2,500 years ago, and the Hippocratic Oath is still respected. Perhaps the seedling from the 2,500 year old plane tree from the island of Cos, under which Hippocrates taught, now growing near the entrance of a New York hospital, provides an appropriate symbol connecting the island Cos and Manhattan island, where the modern descendants of Hippocrates, like the late Dr. George Papanicolaou – who developed the ‘pap test’ that has saved untold numbers of lives.
Women in ancient Greece, too, were instrumental in history. Aristotles’wife, Pythias, knew about histology, embryology, and had proposed excellent theories on embryonic development and fertilization. Together, on the island of Lesbos, Pythias assisted her husband, Aristotle, with his studies in biology, botany, and physiology, together having written an encyclopedia with their important findings. Women were allowed to study medicine in all Hippocratic schools where obstetrics and gynecology were established. In Thessaly, there were women surgeons who successfully removed spears heads from soldiers’ bodies and healed their wounds. When the Romans conquered Corinth in 146 BC they enslaved hundreds of Greek medical women that were sold in Rome. They brought the highest prices.
There were many other women who made excellent medical observations. Artemisia, Queen of Caria, wife of Mausolos, was an expert in herbal medicines. Philistia, sister of King Pyrrhus, was an obstetrician and midwife. We learn from Pliny that Sotira wrote a book on sterility and abortions.
But, naturally, there were huge setbacks. During the middle Ages, there was a long, mental, intellectual stagnation in Western Europe – though not in the Byzantine Empire. Then, with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, the writings were all re-introduced into Europe via refugees who went to Italy. That contributed to the Renaissance and the ancient Greek medicine became the fertile soil upon which modern medicine advanced once again. Of course, there are those who will appear as authors of what the ancient Greeks had taught. Often, we’d see on TV health experts telling the audience about wonderful healings and natural medicines they had endorsed or created. Audiences are seen nodding and smiling with approval. Very often, I’d recognize they’d only be repeating Hippocrates’s findings as their own.
In summary, Greeks have profoundly modified the whole trend of modern civilization.