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Hippocrates Hippocrates

Born: 460 B.C. in Cos, Greece
Died: 377 B.C. in Larissa, Greece
Nationality: Greek
Occupation: physician

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 medicine.

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.

Hippocratic Corpus

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.

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Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD BIOGRAPHY, 2nd ed. 17 vols. Gale Research, 1998. Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.


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