Hippocrates and his Big Ideas

Hippocrates and his Big Ideas

Hippocrates is one of the most significant figures in the history of medicine. Despite living two and a half thousand years ago, his ideas still influence medical practice today. Hippocrates was responsible for a vast number of texts, the Hippocratic Corpus, and instilled ideas about care that are taken for granted nowadays. In this post we look at the key facts about Hippocrates and his legacy.

Who was Hippocrates?

Hippocrates was a physician who was born on the Greek Island of Cos in around 460BC. He became famous in his lifetime and is considered by many to be the founder of modern medicine. Indeed he is referred to as ‘the father of medicine’ and doctors still take the Hippocratic Oath, named after him, when they qualify.


What was his big idea?

Hippocrates had a few big ideas! He developed the Theory of the Four Humors which explains disease through looking at the liquids in the body and the way that they are balanced. He also advocated clinical observation, a method still used today in which the symptoms of a disease are observed before treatment is given. Prior to this, many doctors had ‘jumped in’ when seeing or hearing of one symptom which could lead to misdiagnosis or unwarranted treatments. His other big idea was professionalism. Everything was recorded carefully, ideas tested before being stated as fact and ‘bedside manner’ was promoted.

Why is this significant?

Many of the things that Hippocrates wrote about were ground breaking. The theory of the four humors works on the principle of the healing power of nature; clinical observation leads to accurate diagnosis and his advice on how to treat different diseases is generally sound. And becuase all of his ideas are carefully recorded they can be used by later generations who can develop and refine the ideas.

What influenced the work of Hippocrates?

Historians think that Hippocrates received training at the Asclepion on the island of Cos and that he also had lessons from Herodicus. It is also thought that his father and grandfather were physicians. If true, these experiences would have been highly influential, as perhaps were the works of philosophers of that age.

How long did his ideas last for?

The Theory of the Four Humors was still being commonly used in the late medieval period and into the Renaissance. Clinical Observation in the format that Hippocrates advised was used for a similar period of time, until doctors had access to high quality medical laboratories (though not universally, there were criticisms of Hippocratic medicine with some arguing that the method of observation led to medication being given too late). The notion of professionalism and carefully recording things has continued to the modern day.

Where can I find out more about Hippocrates?

The main part of this website has details of Hippocratic medicine, the Theory of the Four Humors and other aspects of medicine at this time.
You can read translations of some of his work on the Internet Classics Archives website.
The historylearningsite has a good introduction to Hippocrates on it.
Wikipedia has a detailed account of Hippocrates’ life and works.

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