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Hippocratic Writings

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It is impossible to be certain which, if any, of the works in the Hippocratic corpus were written by Hippocrates himself (c.430 BC). His fame was such that many Greek medical writings became attributed to him. What they have in common is not dogma but, rather, constructive debate between one another. They also share a concern with meticulous observation and an insistence on physical, not supernatural, causation of illness. The writers were the pioneers of rational medicine; their ideas, dominant for centuries, still reveal to us the ideal of ethical practice, as well as the origins not just of Western medicine but of scientific method.
This excellent selection of Hippocratic treatises shows the range of writing and thought. Some are technical works on embryology, surgery or anatomy; others are addressed to a lay audience; all are informed with the spirit of inquiry. G.E.R. Lloyd's authoritative introduction puts them into their contemporary context and assesses their later influence.

384 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1950

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297 books175 followers
Hippocrates of Cos or Hippokrates of Kos (ca. 460 BC – ca. 370 BC) was an ancient Greek physician of the Age of Pericles, and was considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine. He is referred to as the "father of medicine" in recognition of his lasting contributions to the field as the founder of the Hippocratic School of medicine. This intellectual school revolutionized medicine in ancient Greece, establishing it as a discipline distinct from other fields that it had traditionally been associated with (notably theurgy and philosophy), thus making medicine a profession.

However, the achievements of the writers of the Corpus, the practitioners of Hippocratic medicine, and the actions of Hippocrates himself are often commingled; thus very little is known about what Hippocrates actually thought, wrote, and did. Nevertheless, Hippocrates is commonly portrayed as the paragon of the ancient physician. In particular, he is credited with greatly advancing the systematic study of clinical medicine, summing up the medical knowledge of previous schools, and prescribing practices for physicians through the Hippocratic Oath and other works.

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Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews
Profile Image for Corinne.
68 reviews183 followers
November 30, 2015
I read this book to understand the basis of our modern allopathic medicine (because Hippocrate is considered as the father of modern medicine), when the allopathic doctors were having troubles to treat my allergies.

It seemed to me that the only wisdom that the modern medicine has kept from this learned man is his sermon, which is used even today to swear in the doctors for their profession.

In any case, I really loved the chapters 'Regimens in acute diseases', 'The sacred Disease', 'Dreams', 'The Nature of Man', and particularly 'A Regimen for Health'.

The practice of medicine today would be so different if the medical profession had adhered to the wisdom of Hippocrate, and not yielded to the pressure of finance.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,123 followers
May 1, 2016
Life is short, and Art long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult. The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate.

It’s healthy, I think, to take a moment once in a while and reflect how different our lives would be without modern medicine. Allow me to start.

At this very moment, two pieces of glass sit suspended on frames before my eyes, bringing the world into focus. When I was very young, I had trouble with my feet, and so had to wear special corrective shoes; and when I grew older, I developed problems in my knees, requiring physical therapy. All my life, I haven’t had to worry about severe diseases, because I’ve been inoculated; the worst sickness I’ve ever had was the flu. All of my adult teeth now sit snugly in my mouth, despite some drilling and filling, thanks to my diligent dentist. Yes, life would be far less pleasant without the timely intervention of modern medicine. I would see poorly, be bow-legged and flat-footed, and half of my teeth would be rotting out of my mouth. Who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t even have survived past infancy?

During my reading of this book, this thought kept popping into my mind: “Thank God I didn’t live back then!” Yes, it would’ve been nice to hobnob with Sophocles and Plato, to see the wonderful works of architecture and art; but life is hard to appreciate without one’s health. I love and cherish Hippocrates for originating a practice that has saved so many lives; but I’d rather see my doctor than one of Hippocrates's pupils.

Well, on to the book. The Hippocratic Writings is a disjointed and various body of texts, probably written by many different people. It treats of surgery, hemorrhoids, ulcers, fractures, epidemics, and much else. Many parts of the book are fascinating windows into the ancient world; but many parts are little more than tedious instruction manuals. Unless you are a historian or a curious doctor, I think the best way to read this would be to skim until you found something that caught your eye. I tried to read it straight through, but some parts were so dry and technical as to be nearly incomprehensible. (By the way, I read the edition in the old Great Books of the Western World series; the Penguin edition might be better edited.)

The modern reader will notice much that is distressingly wrong. For one, the Hippocratics believed in the four humors of the body—black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood—which we now know to be hopelessly false. There is also much concern with the weather, the stars, and various other things that seem totally irrelevant. For example, there is one passage about how, if a fever lasts an even number of days, it won’t come back; but if it lasts an odd number of days, it’s sure to return.

Nevertheless, I think that the reflections contained in this book are, in the main, impressively modern. For one, the Hippocratics were scrupulously empirical; they amassed tons of observations, and emphasized experience. There are even a few passages which seems to suggest that they were doing dissections: “If you will cut open the head, you will find the brain humid, full of sweat, and having a bad smell. And in this way truly you may see that it is not a god that injures the body, but disease.”

Sometimes, the writing style will seem strangely contemporary—even journalistic. I particularly liked the case studies. I want to quote one of these case studies at length, because they’re fun to read:
Case I. Philiscus, who lived by the Wall, took to bed on the first day of acute fever; he sweated; towards night was uneasy. On the second day all the symptoms were exacerbated; late in the evening had a proper stool from a small clyster [enema]; the night quiet. … On the fifth, about mid-day, had a slight trickling of pure blood from the nose; urine varied in character, having floating in it round bodies, resembling semen, and scattered, but which did not fall to the bottom; a suppository having been applied, some scanty flatulent matters were passed; night uncomfortable, little sleep, talking incoherently; extremities altogether cold, and could not be warmed; urine black; slept a little towards day; loss of speech, cold sweats; extremities livid; about the middle of the sixth day he died.

(Interestingly enough, there is a lot of careful examination of urine and feces. Also, most of these case studies end in death—not very reassuring.)

Another impressive quality of the Hippocratics were their professionalism. This is most famously exampled by their oath; and, every now and then, there is a little pieces of advice for physicians wishing to improve their bedside manner (such as talking to distract a patient while performing a painful procedure). The text itself is a wonderful example of the seriousness with which they approached medicine; it is perhaps one of the first and most influential examples of the textbook.

Perhaps the most impressive section is “On the Sacred Disease.” There, the writer rejects all divine explanations of diseases, and shows that the people who attempt to cure these diseases with ‘purifications’ are quacks: “Those who first referred this malady to the gods appear to me to have been just such persons as the conjurors, purificators, mountebanks, and charlatans now are, who give themselves out for being excessively religious, and as knowing more than other people.” Then the author goes on to show that, if inspected, these supposedly ‘divine’ diseases leave characteristic marks on the patients’ bodies, which points to a natural cause. It’s wonderfully modern in feel, even if the ‘natural’ explanations proposed are all incorrect.

Those Ancient Greeks really were impressive. I’d be interested if any historians attempted to explain why, of all places and times, such a free and curious society originated. Well, whatever the case, at least we can be grateful for them—and also, in this case, grateful we aren’t them.
Profile Image for Lino.
142 reviews5 followers
January 25, 2021
This is a collection of texts from Greece at around 400 BC, mostly attributed to Hippocrates but not necessarily authored by him. At that time the consensus was that diseases were supernatural, caused by the gods, who had to be somehow appeased into providing the cure. Hippocrates thought that was all bullshit.

According to Hippocrates, all diseases had a natural cause. The doctor's job was to observe the patient, figure out the cause and apply the remedy. In his own words:

medicine is the complete removal of the distress of the sick, the alleviation of the more violent diseases, and the refusal to undertake to cure cases in which the disease has already won the mastery, knowing that everything is not possible to medicine

He had a tough job, Hippocrates. There were lots of grifters engaged in the business of curing:

Talking and doing tricks, they pretend to know more than they really know, and they deceive people by prescribing a pure life and purifications while going on about divinities and spirits.

How depressing is it that his struggle still feels current? You can't really blame Greeks a thousand years before the scientific method. Ourselves, though, we don't deserve that much generosity.

On a more critical note, I think it goes without saying that Hippocrates' arguments aren't all that convincing. It's easy for us to overlook this because somehow he arrived at mostly at the right conclusions, or at least he was heading on the right direction. But each time he undertakes to explain his logic, it's clearly flawed. Some of the things he says are so wrong they're hilarious. It reminds me of what they say about Galileo, who also was on the right side of history, but some would say on the wrong side of science.

But that's a minor digression easily explainable away by the times. That's not where his legacy is. The honesty in the desire for knowledge, in truly understanding the causes and cures for diseases is one of the reasons Hippocrates became an icon for medicine. And not only that. He elaborates on the doctor's role in society, the ethic challenges that the position entails, and the fundamental obligation in caring and dedication to the patient.

The edition

I got the Penguin Classics edition because the translation was recommended to me. I can't judge the translation itself, but I found this edition lacking in some aspects.

Aside from the introduction, which is great, I think this deserved way more notes. There are virtually none through the book. I would have loved to see, for example, commentary from doctors on the epidemics books, where he describes some patients conditions and how he treated them. Would be nice to know what doctors actually think the diseases were and whether the treatments were effective, harmful or pointless.

Another passage I would have liked more clarification on comes from The Oath itself:

Neither will I give a woman means to procure an abortion.

I have many questions reading this: Were greeks in general anti-abortion? Or was Hippocrates a contrarian in that aspect? Was this a moral choice, religious, or clinical? I had to take to the internet to figure it out. It turns out the literal phrase is "And likewise I will not give a woman a destructive vaginal tampon.” And, yes, it's for a clinical reason. This was a dangerous and reckless procedure. And how do we know that? Because on the same Oath he has doctors swear not to practice abdominal surgery, another dangerous practice. And further down on another book he teaches a woman how to abort a fetus another way. I think these notes and many others deserved to be on the book.

Another omission is an explanation of why Hippocrates became such icon for medicine if it was known he wasn't actually the author of all those books. Why then are these the "Hippocratic writings" if he didn't write them?

There's a theory that it's because Galen, a physician from centuries later who promoted Hippocrates. Galen happened to be very popular with the church for his claim that the human body was so perfect that must have been created by God. Later, when Galen passed away, the Hippocratic connection survived as the father of medicine.

Another possible explanation is more amusing: a single librarian organized all ancient medical books under Hippocrates. So the real truth is probably impossible to tell, but I wouldn't mind some speculation.

A final curiosity

desperate cases need the more desperate measures

Yeah, that's where that quote and all its variations come from.
Profile Image for Lancer.
91 reviews24 followers
March 20, 2017
there is something oddly gratifying reading through records of people dying from a myriad of terrifying gross bloody diarrhea deaths and knowing that chances of said fate have dropped dramatically over the centuries. It is so morbidly detached from emotion at times. one of the most tolerable university reads i have had.
Profile Image for Illiterate.
1,682 reviews31 followers
December 10, 2020
Thankfully the Greeks’ fondness for philosophical blather didn’t preclude the rise of medicine as an empirical craft.
Profile Image for Jaime Ting.
121 reviews4 followers
August 16, 2021
"For a man to be truly suited to the practice of medicine, he must be possessed of a natural disposition for it, the necessary instruction, favourable circumstances, education, industry and time." (Medicine-The Oath)

"Want of skill is a poor thing to prize and treasure. It robs a man of contentment and tranquility night and day and makes him prone to cowardice and recklessness, the one a mark of weakness, the other of ignorance. Science and opinion are two different things; science is the father of knowledge but opinion breeds ignorance." (Medicine-The Canon)

"No one can understand the science of medicine unless he knows what man is; that anyone who proposes to treat men for their illnesses must first learn of such things." (Medicine-Tradition In Medicine)

"...any change much in excess of what is moderate is harmful." (Medicine-Regimen In Acute Diseases)

"Desperate cases need the most desperate remedies." (Medicine-Aphorisms)

"A wise man ought to realize that health is his most valuable possession and learn how to treat his illnesses by his own judgement." (Medicine-A Regimen For Health)
Profile Image for Zachary G. Augustine.
Author 1 book9 followers
November 17, 2013
The Hippocratics, famous for their Oath, were actually a very diverse and widespread group of traveling doctors that shared few common opinions. The unusually conservative Oath, in which doctors declare "not to cut, even for the stone", is probably a specific cult and not reflective of the greater part of the doctors of 6th century Greece. Indeed, the latter parts of the Hippocratic Writings include many contradictions to the oath which can be confusing without the proper historical context.

Within its context, this book is reduced to a sort of museum piece that reflects many long-held scientific and medical theories. Inheritance of acquired characteristics, the health effects of water and wind, and a kind of Aristotelian belief in the elements are all prevalent. Within these mistaken beliefs the Hippocratics do make some scientific deductions, but they are of little interest to most modern readers, only to a historian of science. It is mainly interesting to see how certain prejudices in scientific thought (e.g. blood as impure) have persisted for so long in cultural thought.

That being said, this Penguin edition is quality. It contains almost the entire corpus--anything worth reading at least, I think its missing a few of the non-medical works--with good annotations and endnotes. Unfortunately, this book remains one of those primary texts that doesn't offer much to those who try and read it in a casual manner. However, the introduction (more of a historical essay, really) by G.E.R. Llyod is excellent and I would highly recommend his book Early Greek Science: From Thales to Aristotle. If you have an interest in ancient Greek science, then The Hippocratic Writings are probably something you can pass by in favor of the large amount of other quality works on the subject.
Profile Image for Jairo Fraga.
281 reviews10 followers
September 29, 2017
Many insights on the beginning of medicine. Hippocratic "doctors" used to think that the environment (air, water, etc), season of the year and unbalance of "humours" caused or contributed to diseases.

Some interesting things were already pointed at that time, like "diet" and even the possibility of the patient lie about what he is eating. Hippocrates and other writers charged money or at least a possible increase for reputation by taking care of the sick, and the Oath, with it's subsequent evolution, is of interest of anyone on the medical area (I enjoyed it even not being one of them).

Not very great writings but, still, useful information to know.
Profile Image for Sarah.
233 reviews16 followers
December 9, 2021
(Penguin Classics 1984 edition. The lengthy introduction by G.E.R. Lloyd provided great context and commentary.) - 4 stars: really liked it. I wouldn't say I loved it, but I really respect this historical contribution to science and found it fairly interesting. It was surprisingly accessible and understandable. An important and good read.
Profile Image for Oliver Choreno.
118 reviews4 followers
June 26, 2020
Cómo dice a Demócrito, presa de la Melancolía, la terapia es de ignorantes, la normalidad la verdadera demencia y la locura comprendida de los sabios.
Profile Image for George.
26 reviews21 followers
September 11, 2016
Primum non nocere. Ars long, vita brevis. You will know these alleged sayings of Hippocrates of Cos. Oft called the Father of Modern Medicine, the ideas and works of Hippocrates held sway and were still taught until fairly recently, given their age. The Hippocratic Writings is a collection of chapters and essays from The Corpus, the Hippocratic School’s body of work. You will have of course heard of the oath, maybe you knew less of the content. Amongst other things it forbids abortions and establishes Urology as the first spate medical discipline (‘do not cut for the Stone’).
We may scoff at the old-fashioned ideas, but we have the privilege of standing on giants’ shoulders. With a modern perspective, we can still be surprised at what they knew and what they didn’t. For example, it was believed that: the mind being located in the heart; homosexuality results from too much horse-riding; that diseases are the result of natural processes (not the interventions of gods); that these processes are influenced by behaviour and environment and follow a set course. There is a mix of what we now take to be true and what we believe to be false.
Personally I laughed at the ideas that fevers swell over days, but as I learnt this applies to malaria and a number of tropical diseases on my Infectious Diseases placement. How confident would you be in treating pneumonia without antibiotics or blood tests or fractures without x-rays? With this in mind it is amazing to see how much they could do with what little they had. With economic restrictions laying an increasingly heavy hand on the services we provide, it is very apparent that things are coming full circle. The simplistic treatments of preventative medicine, exercise, diet and environment are held to be the future of medical care. They were also its past.
Was Hippocrates the father of medicine? Was there a single man? It is probably better to refer to the Hippocratic School; some of the Corpus is contradictory and plenty of scholars agree that it is the work of more than one person. The importance lies in that this was the product of a school, that the ideas of medicine needed to be passed on a developed. Thus we can see these essays as sections of a textbook and it shouldn’t be surprising when the writers elaborate on the influences of environment on public health or the dimensions of a bench used to correct dislocations.
I can appreciate my position of being a 21st Century boy, that I do not have to suffer leeching or castration for whatever ails me. Instead I have the luck of receiving quality care. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to see where these ideas come from. This work not only recorded the birth of methods of medicine but also the philosophy of medicine. If you really want some perspective of your position as a doctor, to be able to look over your shoulder and see the long line of practitioners extending behind you, read this book.
78 reviews7 followers
September 16, 2015
A fine start on the Hippocratic corpus -- think of this as a "greatest hits" volume; it doesn't at all cover the entire corpus, but it gives you the big picture of just how diverse this collection of writings is. The introduction is also aimed at a popular, educated audience and therefore serves an important function of helping to make sense of the materials (rather than assuming that the reader is already an expert in secondary scholarship concerning Hippocrates).
Profile Image for Russell.
278 reviews26 followers
January 15, 2009
The text was fairly interesting, although outdated, it was the story behind the text that I really enjoyed. The progress of Greek thought from random folk cures to the slow creation of the basics of the scientific method and a real profession.

Not a must read, but a good choice if you are brushing up on the Ancient Greek world and the impact it had on Western Civilization.
Profile Image for Vera Marsova.
182 reviews39 followers
July 4, 2017
Life is short, art is long, opportunity fleeting, experiment dangerous, judgement difficult. Not only must the physician show himself prepared to do what is necessary; he must also secure the co:operation of the patient, the attendants, and of external circumstances.
- Hippocrates, Aphorisms I.1
129 reviews4 followers
February 18, 2013
I find it fascinating to think about how the Greeks looked at disease and the course modern medicine has followed.
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