What Ancient Greeks & Romans Knew about Preventing the Spread of Disease

June 5, 2021

NEW YORK – The ancient Greeks and Romans knew a great deal about preventing the spread of disease, according to Fast Company (FC) which noted the ancient ideas concerning air flow and the four humors “blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile” that correspond to the “four elements: air, water, fire, and earth— all of which were believed to influence the body and its emotions,” and helped prevent the spread of certain diseases.

“The Roman author, architect, and civil engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, commonly known as Vitruvius, described the importance of airflow in his work On Architecture,” FC reported, noting that “he advises building a city on an elevated point that is temperate and not near a swamp. He is wary that a morning breeze could displace damp air and mosquitoes from the swamp to a city, which could in turn cause, in modern terms, infectious disease.”

The article also cited the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates of Kos. “Perhaps the most famous and influential set of ancient medical ideas is to be found in a collection of Greek texts known as the Hippocratic Corpus, named after the fifth-century ‘father’ of Western medicine, Hippocrates,” FC reported, adding that “the way the Hippocratic texts arrive at conclusions is not always correct from our modern point of view. But that doesn’t mean they’re always wrong.”

“One of the texts, called Airs Waters Places, presents a detailed analysis of airflow and humidity and its influence on seasonal peaks of infectious diseases,” FC reported, noting that “as the text explains, a fifth-century BC doctor taking up a post in a new town would, first of all, familiarize themselves with the local geography and weather as well as with the typical endemic diseases.”

“As time and the year passes he will be able to tell what epidemic diseases will attack the city either in summer or in winter, as well as those peculiar to the individual which are likely to occur through change in mode of life,” FC reported, adding that “today, modern medical theory has shown how climate can affect the spread of infections, potentially including COVID-19. This is particularly important information in an age of rapid climate change.”

“It’s also important for doctors to be aware of what diseases are prevalent in their areas,” FC reported, noting that “for instance, tick-borne encephalitis is rare in most of Europe, but quite common in some areas such as Sweden and also now parts of the U.K. The disease is only prevalent in some climatic areas but is spreading due to climate change.”

“Even more advanced for the time are the Hippocratic Epidemics, an ancient Greek medical manual that examines the consequences of climatic conditions on the spread of infectious diseases,” FC reported, adding that “right at the start, the author describes a disease that resembles modern-day mumps that appeared in specific climatic circumstances. As we know today, a higher incidence of mumps is associated with weather conditions.”

“While it’s evident that ancient medicine lacked a lot of theory on the nature of contagion— after all, bacteria and viruses were yet to be discovered— the way that cities and public buildings were planned with public health in mind, and doctors saw their patient in a broader context, that took the climate into account, was surprisingly advanced,” FC reported, noting that “today, ventilation is often poor in public buildings, and risk assessments on the potential of infectious disease are not routinely carried out. So while the underlying scientific theory may not be valid, perhaps some of these ancient measures could help us reimagine public places for the post-pandemic world.”


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