460 B.C. in Cos, Greece
377 B.C. in Larissa, Greece
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BC), the father of medicine, put a
definitive stamp on the whole character of Greek medicine.
Only the barest outline of the biography of Hippocrates emerges from the ancient
writings. He was born on the Aegean island of Cos, just off the Ionian coast near
Halicarnassus. He is called Hippocrates Asclepiades, "descendant of (the doctor-god)
Asclepios," but whether this descent was by family or merely by his espousing the
medical profession is uncertain. His teachers in medicine are said to have been his
father, Heracleides, and Herodicos of Selymbria. Hippocrates certainly was known in
Athens, for Plato mentions him twice, on each occasion calling him Asclepiades. It is also
clear that the height of his career was during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.).
The lack of knowledge concerning Hippocrates may seem strange in view of the great
volume of writings attributed to him, the CORPUS HIPPOCRATICUM (Hippocratic Corpus), the
first known edition of which is from the time of the emperor Hadrian (reigned A.D.
117-138). It is clear, however, that this body of writings contains material of many
different kinds and includes differences in standpoint toward medicine. This disparity was
recognized even in ancient times, and Alexandrian scholars differed about the authentic
Hippocrates, though none rejected every work.
Any notion of the nature of Hippocrates's medical procedure must be based on
pre-Alexandrian texts, that is, on texts dating more closely to Hippocrates's lifetime and
reflecting an untainted direct tradition. Two excellent sources are Plato's PHAEDRUS
(270C-D) and Meno's account of Hippocrates in his history of medicine. There is sufficient
evidence in these works to establish with certainty the main outlines of Hippocratic
In antiquity, some works in the Hippocratic Corpus were recognized as having been
written by persons other than Hippocrates, but acceptance and rejection depended on a
number of subjective stances. More modern scholarship has used as its touchstone the
genuine doctrine of Hippocrates as found in Plato and Meno. This mode of investigation,
while common to all scholars, has not produced general agreement. It is well to point out
that neither Plato nor Meno quotes word for word from Hippocrates's works; they seem in
fact to summarize him in their own words, which of course have overtones from their own
particular philosophy. So although there is a body of doctrine connected with Hippocrates,
modern scholars have no inkling of his prose style, against which the Hippocratic Corpus
could be tested.
Nowhere in the Hippocratic Corpus is the entire Hippocratic doctrine to be found. However,
these numerous works are so multifarious that here and there parts of the doctrine come
to light. It is worth noting that, since Plato and Meno discussed the work of Hippocrates,
it is reasonable to assume that they had at their disposal medical books written by him.
This makes the problem even more intriguing. Hippocrates's fame, though it was at such
a height during his lifetime, still could not ensure the preservation of his works.
The body of writing attributed to Hippocrates, the Hippocratic Corpus, is a collection of
roughly 70 works that show no uniformity in teaching or in prose style. With a few
exceptions the dates of these works range between 450 and 350 B.C.; they are the
oldest surviving complete medical books. It would be unfair to allege deception as the
motive behind attributing the entire collection to Hippocrates; nor was it the result of
ignorance and carelessness, since Galen and those before him did not regard every work
as genuine. A reasonable hypothesis holds that these works were gathered together to
form the basis of the medical library of some school, probably at Alexandria.
Photo: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.