Known as the 'father of medicine', Hippocrates and his work significantly impacted medical theory and practice from the ancient world through to the modern day. His ideas were key in the medieval era and dictated how people thought of illness, remedies, and anatomy.

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    But why did Hippocrates' teaching survive as the dominant health theory for over 1,500 years, and how did humoral theory influence public health in Medieval Britain? Let's find out!

    Hippocrates Biography

    Hippocrates was born around 460 BC on the Greek island of Kos. He became a physician and teacher who enormously influenced medicine throughout the ancient and medieval world. He is regarded as the father of medicine.

    Hippocrates founded a medical school on his home island of Kos around 400 BC. Here, he taught his views on medical theory and treatment.

    Hippocrates Bust of Hippocrates StudySmarterFig. 1 - Hippocrates of Kos, by Rubens

    He was mentioned in works by other famous Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. There are around 60 works that have his name, although it is not certain that he authored them all.

    Equally, he is said to have created the Hippocratic Oath - however, it is unlikely that Hippocrates actually wrote the oath - it is more likely someone created the oath based on Hippocrates' teachings.

    Did you know? Even though Hippocrates' theories are now considered untrue, his ideas were radical at the time. He was the first to suggest that illnesses were caused naturally and not by the gods or other supernatural means.

    Hippocrates Teachings

    Hippocrates is known for his contributions to medicine. In the ancient world, it was commonly believed that the gods caused illnesses. Hippocrates reasoned that all illnesses had a natural cause. His medical theory was based on observation and rational conclusions, not superstition.


    A belief or practice that is not rooted in observable fact, normally being attributed to supernatural means.

    Hippocrates Invention

    One of the most important teachings of Hippocrates was his invention of humoral theory. His theory suggested that the body contained four humours that dictated someone's personality and controlled health. If the humours were out of balance, a person would become sick.

    Hippocrates Theory

    The following table explains the nature of the four humours.

    HumourPersonality TypeAssociations
    BloodThe "sanguine" humorAssociated with air and believed to be hot and wet.
    PhlegmThe "phlegmatic" humorAssociated with water and believed to be cold and wet.
    Yellow BileThe "choleric" humorAssociated with fire and believed to be hot and dry.
    Black BileThe "melancholic" humorAssociated with earth and believed to be cold and dry.

    According to this theory, physicians had to adjust these humours to rebalance them in case of illness.

    Humoral theory was later expanded on by the Roman physician Galen, who helped humoral theory to develop and survive well into the medieval era.

    Hippocrates Four Humours Theory StudySmarterFig. 2 - A chart showing the four humours and what they were associated with

    Hippocrates Medical Ethics

    Another critical aspect of Hippocrates' teachings was his contribution to medical ethics - essentially, the rules that physicians need to follow.

    Medical Ethics

    These are the moral principles through which medicine is governed - they dictate how doctors should behave and treat patients.

    Hippocrates noted that physicians should uphold the highest standards of morality and professionalism. A physician should be honourable and polite and should be extremely familiar with every disease and remedy so that they can offer the best advice to their patients. He also stated that physicians should always put the health of their patients first, offering help to anyone regardless of who they were and what they believed.

    Hippocrates' work on medical ethics resulted in the Hippocratic Oath, which is still used today. It is a code that all medical professionals have to follow. It is very unlikely that Hippocrates himself actually wrote this code. Still, it is based on his thoughts about medical ethics.

    The modern text is as follows:

    As a new doctor, and a member of the medical profession:

    I solemnly pledge that I will do my best to serve humanity – caring for the sick, promoting good health and alleviating pain and suffering.

    I will care for all patients equally and not allow prejudice to influence my practice.

    I will respect the autonomy and dignity of my patients, and will uphold their confidentiality.

    I will acknowledge my patients’ physical, psychological, and social needs and assist them to make informed decisions that reflect their own values and beliefs.

    I will respect, support and give gratitude to my teachers, colleagues and all those who sustain the NHS.

    I will reflect on my practice and recognise my limits.

    I will seek to increase my understanding and skills, and promote the advancement of medicine as both a teacher and a learner.

    I will work towards a fairer distribution of health resources and oppose policies in breach of human rights.

    I will look after my own physical, mental and emotional well-being in my personal and professional life.

    I shall never intentionally cause harm to my patients, and will have the utmost respect for human life.

    I will practice medicine with integrity, humility, honesty and compassion.

    I recognise that the practice of medicine is a privilege with which comes considerable responsibility and I will not abuse my position.

    I make this declaration sincerely, freely and upon my honour.'1

    Influence in the Medieval Era

    Hippocrates' theories on medicine and health were well-respected and widely acknowledged in the medieval period, despite his work being over one thousand years old by this point.

    The Medieval Period

    The Medieval Period in Europe is usually considered to run from around 1066 to 1485.

    The Church played a prominent role in the distribution of medical knowledge in this era since it controlled the printing and copying of books. They trusted Hippocrates' work and distributed the necessary resources to teach medical practitioners.

    public health in medieval britain apothecary preparation studysmarterFig. 3 - Two apothecaries preparing a herbal remedy

    Belief in humoral theory led to the development of remedies and treatments centred around re-balancing the humours.

    • Phlebotomy (Bleeding): This involved cutting or scratching the skin or using leeches to extract blood from the body. However, doctors often took this too far, and people would die from blood loss.
    • Purging: This was done when doctors believed that a person had too much yellow bile in them. It was believed that food was used to create the humours, so a way of rebalancing them was to get the food out of your body and 'start again'. This would be done using an emetic, which would make someone vomit, or a clyster, which would make them go to the toilet.

    Did you know? Hippocrates' theories on medicine only truly faded from public health in Britain as late as the mid-19th century!

    A physician would observe the patient - looking at their body and examining bodily fluids to assess how and why they thought the patient's humours were imbalanced. From there, they would prescribe treatments like bleeding and purging to rebalance them.

    Hippocrates and Public Health

    The dominance of humoral theory also meant that individual medical knowledge and home remedies were also based on this theory. While physicians were available, many people turned to homemade remedies first when someone was ill.

    Medicinal Plants

    Plants were a crucial part of remedies in the Medieval period. Greek texts like those of Hippocrates, preserved and translated by Arabic scholars, gave detailed lists and examples of what plants were best to rebalance the humours and treat illnesses.

    No monastery kitchen garden was complete without a herb garden for medicine. Several of these plants could be grown by anyone in their garden, allowing people to make home remedies. Of course, apothecaries would also use these herbs to create remedies that people could buy.

    Hippocrates' impact on public health in the Medieval Period cannot be overstated. His theories and methods were foundational for how people thought about the causes of disease and how they should be cured, forming a basis for medical theory that dominated Medieval Europe for 1,500 years.

    Hippocrates - Key takeaways

    • Hippocrates was an ancient Greek physician who lived from c.460BC to c.370BC.

    • He is credited with the invention of humoral theory, later developed by the Roman physician Galen.

    • Humoral theory was a keystone of Medieval medicine, and many popular remedies were based on it.

    • Hippocrates also championed drawing rational conclusions from the observation of a patient.

    • Modern versions of the Hippocratic oath, based on Hippocrates' work, are sometimes used as a code of conduct for medical professionals.


    1. 1. 'Declaration of a new Doctor'; University of Exeter, College of Medicine and Health (https://www.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/graduation/documents/hippocratic-oath.pdf)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Hippocrates

    Who was Hippocrates?

    Hippocrates was an Ancient Greek physician born around 460 BC. He is often referred to as the "father of medicine" for his work on medical theory and practice.

    What did the Hippocrates believe?

    Hippocrates' main belief was the "Theory of the Four Humours". This theory stated that the body contained four "humours": blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. An imbalance of these humours was responsible for illness, and in order to rebalance them, the opposite properties were required in the treatment.

    What did Hippocrates discover?

    Hippocrates' developed a methodology for the practice of medicine. He discovered that the best way to treat a patient was through observation and rational conclusions. This was opposed to the societal belief in superstition that blamed illness on the gods. Rather, Hippocrates believed that illnesses had a natural cause.

    What was Hippocrates famous for?

    Hippocrates is famous for his creation of the theory of the four humours - which influenced medical practice for nearly 1,500 years. Today, Hippocrates' theories of medical ethics and practice can be seen with the Hippocratic Oath - a series of statements that many doctors promise to adhere to based on Hippocrates' beliefs.

    What is Hippocrates theory?

    Hippocrates' key theory was that of the Four Humours. He believed that the body contained four humours which, when imbalanced, can cause illness. The four humours are blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Each humour has certain characteristics and are also attributed to the patient's personality. In order to cure an illness, Hippocrates believed that the opposite traits of the humour need to be applied - for example if a patient was dry and cold, they had too much black bile, and therefore the treatment would be wet and hot - a physician might therefore prescribe sweating.

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