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Beyond the fact that he existed, little is known for certain about Hippocrates. It is generally held that he was born in Cos around 460 bc and died in Thessaly at an advanced age, some time after 375 bc—his 86th year. He was a contemporary of Democritus, Thucydides and Socrates. Where he travelled in his lifetime, with whom he spoke and studied, and what exactly he may have written, remains largely conjecture. A huge body of literature, however, bears his name, the so-called Hippocratic Corpus, consisting of about 70 treatises, first collated in Alexandria in the 4th century bc. Much of this was written by his contemporaries and students, some of it added later, and maybe some part of it is by Hippocrates himself.
The Corpus contains writings that represent three main strands of thinking within Ancient Greek medicine: first, the primarily speculative work of the medical theorists; second, the factually descriptive and observational clinical diaries, which typify the medical school of Cnidos, across the water from Cos; and lastly, the works of the circle of Hippocrates and the school of Cos, who based their thinking on meticulous observation but were concerned always to interpret it and understand it in the wider context of the human condition. It is an extended, and often moving, meditation on mortality.
To the first group belong the famous speculative works, such as On Regimen and the treatise on Winds, which argue from the general and theoretical to the particular, and represent an older and more conservative tradition of speculative philosophy; to the second belong the classifications and clinical minutiae of On Maladies (II) and On Internal Affections, and a number of the gynaecological treatises which are characterised by their inability, or their refusal, to rise beyond the factual. In the heart of the Corpus, however, is a series of treatises which are the product of a different kind of mind: On Regimen in Acute Diseases, On Epidemics (I & III), On Prognosis, the early sections of the Aphorisms, and the groundbreaking and influential works on Joints and Fractures. A number of works of ethical character, such as The Oath, The Precepts, The Doctor, etc., may also be linked loosely to this group of works which are, if not by Hippocrates himself, certainly by those he taught, worked with, or influenced through his profoundly humanistic cast of thought.
This last group is characterised, at one end of the philosophical spectrum, by an extraordinary appetite and respect for disinterested information and observation; and at the other end, by a deep—almost saintly—concern for the human plight. And in the fertile area between these two diametric poles, grow new and important concepts: an understanding of disease as comprehensible only in relation to the human-being viewed as a whole—his or her history, character, psychology, climatic environment, dietary and exercise regime, and so on; a methodology for the analytical diagnosis and prognosis of maladies; a sense of the ethical responsibilities of the doctor, the seriousness of his calling, and, throughout, a genuine and thoughtful modesty about the limitations of what he can do. Nature cures, and man can, by understanding, only facilitate that process at best.
Hippocrates treated and speaks of cases of illness in women, or injury of slaves, with a humane and disinterested social impartiality which contrasts with several of the greater thinkers of the next generation, such as Plato and Aristotle. His teaching began to rid medicine of superstition, false fears, false hopes and false practice. It was heir to the earliest and best im pulses of Greek thinking—clarity, universal analysis, and respect for the power of nature; and as such it laid the basis of our modern understanding of the human body. One version or another of his outline of the ethical precepts of the profession, known as the Hippocratic Oath, is still used in most countries in the world to this day at the ceremonial qualification of doctors.
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Hippocrates and the Hippocratic writings.