Most people associate the name Hippocrates with the medical profession; indeed, he is heralded as the Father of Medicine. Is that all there was to Hippocrates of Kos, though? Was he just a doctor in the Age of Pericles?

Granted, he lived a long time ago - even before our current calendar system was established, putting his life and times squarely on the BC end of the spectrum. Still, so remarkable were his accomplishments and declarations that even Plato expounded on them. So did many others throughout history.

And then, there's that edict that every medical school graduate knows - those words continue to guide medical research and discovery still today.

He discovered no species, nor could he have told you what DNA was. He's never seen a cell - indeed, microbiology was not even a thing, in his lifetime. Nor, for that matter, were marine biology, physiology or the study of plant life.

While records show he did travel substantially, he encountered neither British, French nor German biologists. He did not teach at university. Those things - including the English did not exist in that era.

He was famous, though, and he was a biologist. He did teach... but was Hippocrates essentially a kindly physician who did his best for his patients or was he something far more revolutionary?

Let's travel back in time to find out how this Ancient Greek biologist transformed his profession.

Hippocrates' Origins

Sometime around the mid-400s BC, a child was born on the Greek island of Kos. His father, a prominent physician named Heracleides, himself descended from a long line of medical men, set himself to teaching his son everything he could about medicine. Not much is known about his mother other than her name: Praxithea.

Being born into a wealthy family, Hippocrates was afforded an excellent education.

You will likely find a bust of Hippocrates on every medical school campus
Whether American, English, French or German, if you’re studying to be a doctor, your university campus most likely has a bust of Hippocrates Photo credit: Sky Noir on / CC BY-NC-ND

He studied reading, writing, spelling and poetry; music, singing and physical education at home, with the help of a few tutors - two of which were Democritus and Gorgias.

Considering how limited and fragmented information from that era is, so far, we're off to a very informative start, right?

Hippocrates likely learned a lot about practising medicine at his father's side, although there are records of him training under Herodicus of Selymbria, a prominent Thracian physician.

There is also evidence that he trained at the Asclepeion of Kos - a type of healing temple dedicated to the demi-god Asclepius. That god was thought to have such healing powers that he could raise the dead.

We'll return to that critical nugget of information in the next segment.

Plato, who was Hippocrates' contemporary, twice wrote about him. First, he designated the eminent physician The Asclepiad and, second, he disclosed Hippocrates' revolutionary philosophy that "complete knowledge of the nature of the body was necessary to practise medicine." - paraphrased from Phaedrus.

Plato's student, Aristotle, at first described Hippocrates as kindly and patient and dignified but, apparently later, revised his opinion of him, reporting on a stern and forbidding manner. Might it have simply been the onset of age that brought about our physician's ill humour?

In any case, like Hippocrates, Aristotle is remembered more for his contributions to philosophy than to biology, zoology and discovery of the natural world.

Denying the Gods

In Hippocrates' time, there were gods for everything from light to life and dark to death. From a healthcare perspective, what that meant was that fervent prayers should be offered up to life-preserving gods - hence the healing temples, where one could pray for the banishment of illness.

Hippocrates changed all that.

He did not deny the gods - we went a bit far, suggesting that in this segment's header. However, he espoused the idea that disease results from natural causes rather than by curses from the gods. Essentially cleaving religion from medicine, he preached his belief that illness is brought about through environmental factors and bad habits.

Hippocrates was the first to express the idea that diet, lifestyle and environmental factors caused disease.

Although some concepts attributed to him - Humourism and some of his ideas about physiology were later found to be misguided, many of his ideas about health and medicine, often less scientific than rooted in common sense, are still embraced today.

Most everybody is familiar with only two of them - the diet and lifestyle admonitions. Two others are much more profound.

In that sense, Hippocrates of Kos and Charles Darwin had something in common; both biologists' theories still impact today's scientific studies.

Hippocrates' work still influences medical practice today
Hippocrates was perhaps the first naturalist whose work still guides the medical profession today. Source: Visualhunt

Diagnosis v. Prognosis

When Hippocrates was a young physician, the Greek ideas of healthcare formed two camps.

The Knidian school of thought revolved around diagnosing people. However, because cutting into dead bodies was considered taboo, those doctors knew little about physiology and, thus, could hardly imagine - let alone intuit what any affliction could do.

The other approach - the Koan School, was more reactive. Rather than attempting a precise treatment for a specific symptom, this philosophy espoused general diagnoses and alleviating symptoms.

The trouble with the Knidian school was its narrow focus - not, as you might think, knowing virtually nothing about how the body works.

As we all know, every condition presents with an array of symptoms that, when added together, point to a specific or family of diseases. Knidian doctors took a more 'one symptom, one condition' approach that, without intervention, might have severely limited medical progress.

Medical Crisis

Hippocrates believed that, during an illness, the body would reach a crisis point at which either the disease will overwhelm the body or the patient's natural defences would kick in and kick illness out.

In this respect, his views aligned more with the Koan school. His approach to the science of medicine was more passive and his ideas of care were more palliative than reactive. Many of his therapies relied on nature's healing powers - ingesting certain plants, getting plenty of rest and drinking clean water.

He's thought to have been reluctant to administer any medicines or pursue a treatment plan which might later prove more damaging to the patient than the initial disease. He often prescribed fasting but would also recommend his patients ingest superfoods such as honey and plants with healing properties.

That doesn't mean he shied away from giving drugs altogether, though. If he was setting a broken bone, for example, before inviting his patients to mount the Hippocratic bench, he would dose them with a natural analgesic before activating the traction mechanisms.

He also made sure that patients' wounds were kept clean, first washing them with clear water and then, with wine, whose alcohol content killed any damaging organisms. Not that he had the scientific wherewithal to know about microscopic organisms.

In all, Hippocrates' focus was on patients' prognosis rather than diagnosis. While many of his methods and certainly his philosophy survives today, we can't say that the medical community follows in that particular footpath... as we'll soon see.

Take the trivia challenge: what does the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel have to do with biology?

Hippocrates in Eastern v Western Medicine

We could hardly label the Father of Medicine a man of science; the discipline hardly existed at the time - in fact, Humanities studies were prized while science was only barely tolerated. So, by grounding much of his work in philosophy and incorporating aspects of the natural world into his doctrine, perhaps he was better tolerated than, say, Pythagoras, a leading scientist of his day.

His wise, gentle manner and his profession no doubt helped, too.

So revered was this man that it was largely believed nothing could improve on his work or teachings. Thus, they stood, unchallenged and unaltered, until six centuries later, when Galen made his mark on the medical world - and, more broadly, in science.

It wasn't until the Middle Ages, when the east Asians embraced his teachings and improved on them that Hippocrates found a new home. From there, his ideas lit the fires of inspiration all over that continent while, in Europe, it wasn't until the Renaissance that they resurfaced.

Today, western medicine is focused more on diagnosing and treating people. While Hippocrates' fundamental philosophies and ideas about ethics form the core of medical practice today, we only adopt palliative care when every other assault on disease has failed.

In other words, western medicine is fully on board with Hippocrates' Crisis theory.

By contrast, eastern medicine more closely adheres to Hippocratic tradition. There is less invasion into the body - fewer surgeries. Illness is treated with age-old remedies such as acupuncture and massage. His recommendations of fasting and following a plant-based diet are an actual part of life in most Asian cultures.

Would Hippocrates earn a Nobel prize for his theories if he were alive today?

Considering how radical his ideas were - denying the gods, indeed! - it's likely he would be locked up and negatively branded rather than being hailed as any kind of Father.

Considering how, throughout history, scientists who were ahead of their time were treated badly, including our most-renowned English naturalist Charles Darwin (his work suffered rejection and ridicule before being embraced), our doctor-father might have fared far worse than he did.

Your turn to chime in: what do you know about other famous biologists throughout history?

Traditional remedies are still an integral component of eastern medicine
Traditional healing theory has a long history; it’s seen little evolution over the centuries. Photo credit: bbcworldservice on / CC BY-NC

Hippocrates' Legacy

It's not really sure exactly how long Hippocrates walked this earth; most authorities on the matter ballpark his age at death to somewhere in his 90s. That might indicate that, if he lived by his word - eating plants, not animals and a following a healthy lifestyle, he was more than likely right that those things are the keys to longevity.

It's also not clear how long he practised medicine. However, we do know he taught his two sons, as well as his son-in-law, Polybus. That adherent to Hippocrates' medical theories mentioned above, Galen of Pergamum, hints that the Polybus was the one who carried on Hippocrates' work.

Some 600 years after his death, during the Hellenistic era, medical science advanced dramatically. No longer constrained by taboos of cutting up bodies, surgery and especially studies of physiology became foundations for the new practices of medicine. Pharmacology too saw a boost in acceptance.

Ironically, competing schools of medical thought still prevailed. Nevertheless, both Empiricism and Rationalism accepted Hippocrates as the source and continued inspiration for their beliefs about medicine and patient care.

However, it was Galen, the 2nd Century AD Roman physician, that did the most to perpetuate Hippocrates' ideas about medicine. Today, that Roman, who was Greek by nationality, is famous for being the greatest of all medical researchers in Antiquity. Still, regardless of his discoveries and accomplishments, he credited Hippocrates with teaching him everything from research methodology to medical practice.

Hippocrates, who lived in a time when science was reviled, who didn't know anything about biology, DNA or even anything as elemental as basic cell structure nevertheless lives on, in the annals of history, through his noble work.

Now discover how the evolution of Galen's personality and treatment of his staff and patients led to much of his discredit, both in his lifetime and after his death.

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.