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Hippocratic Oath






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Hippocrates--The medical renegade
who came to be called the
Father of Medicine.

In order to understand the origin of the theories as well as the present practice of the traditional Unani system, it is useful to reflect on precisely how "medicine" originated and how it has evolved up to the present time.

   Scholars are in general agreement that the origins of medicine are lost in the mists of time. Anthropologists have discovered references to codified medical practice as far back as 10,O00 B.C. Treatment by herbs is one of the oldest forms of therapy, with reference to applying herbs found in the Chinese text Pen tsao (3000 B.C.). The Egyptian medical papyrus discovered by Georg Moritz Ebers dates from 1550 B.C. and reveals startlingly learned treatises on a wide variety of complex medical treatments.

   It is probably fair to assume that ever since the first pain or discomfort was felt by humans, efforts have been made to alleviate human suffering. Religious scholars relate that Adam's first son was inspired with the medicinal powers of herbs and was a healer. The Sufis claim that Hazrat Solomon was the first to record the healing properties of plants, when a succession of hundreds of flowers and plants miraculously appeared before him while he prayed and told him of their healing properties.

   Modern scholarship traces the origins of medicine as an art back to ancient Greece, where two distinct schools of medicine flourished. In the older school at Cnidus, emphasis was placed upon subjective symptoms and little attention was paid to the objective evaluation of signs. This school considered an illness affecting one organ to be particular to that organ, and treated it separately. But the diagnosis--based exclusively on symptomatology--was far from accurate and led to great confusion and dissatisfaction with medicine.

Partly as an answer to the disagreement with this school at Cnidus, a band of renegade physicians fled to the nearby island of Cos and established a rival school, which was to become famous as the home of Hippocrates, who is called the "Father of Medicine." Hippocrates was the first to set forth the principles of the humoral theory. He viewed the human body as a complete, integrated whole (as opposed to a collection of parts), and his system of treatments was of a general nature, rather than a specific treatment against one set of symptoms.

   Furthermore, Hippocrates eliminated the elements of magic and superstition that had crept into medicine, and laid stress on the careful observation of the mental and physical condition of the patient, as well as on the effects of the surrounding environment. Hippocrates also first introduced the practice of taking case histories of patients, so that a clear record of progress could be followed. He said that the purpose of medicine was to assist nature's recuperative power to throw off disease. In other words, he relied on the body's own self-healing mechanisms rather than introducing external agents.

   Perhaps the most important theory developed by Hippocrates was that of physis, meaning "the organism in its unity." Hippocrates postulated that life entails a reciprocal relationship between the organism and its environment. In this constant interaction, he saw the origins of disease. Hippocrates held that the organism grows at the expense of the environment, taking from it what is necessary to sustain life and rejecting what is unnecessary. From Hippocrates' viewpoint, disease was the occurrence of severe difficulty in this digestion, or pepsis, of the environment by the organism. His term for indigestion--dyspepsia--is still used today.

   Hippocrates followed the doctrine of his predecessors that the essence of matter was to be found in the four primary elements, fire, water, air, and earth. He also subscribed to the Pythagorean theory of the four humors. He described the interrelationship of these elements and humors as follows:

The body of man has in itself blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; these make up the nature of his body, and through these he feels pain or enjoys health. Now he enjoys the most perfect health when these elements are duly proportioned to one another in respect to compounding, power, and bulk, and when they are perfectly mingled. Pain is felt when one of these elements is in defect or excess, or is isolated in the body without being compounded with all the others.

   According to humoral theory, then, pneumonia, for example, is caused by abnormal phlegm arising in the head; when phlegm is admixed with the blood, fever and chills result.

   The changing of the seasons of the year were felt to cause major shifts in the proportion of the humors, and in this is found the explanation for seasonal diseases such as colds and flus. Moreover, daily habits of work and sleep, exercise, emotions, geographical changes, and climate all bear an effect upon the humors and thus are considered in determining the cause of disease, that is, which humor is out of balance. For example, the blood humor predominates in spring, yellow bile in summer, black bile in autumn, and phlegm in winter.

  The full explanation of the system of humors, along with the diseases associated with imbalances, is presented in the section on Unani Doctrines. It is important to acknowledge that these concepts originated with Hippocrates, who wrote them down and codified them into a science. In sum, Hippocrates introduced a very high standard of ethics, observation, and idealism into medicine, and brought it from the arcane doldrums of superstition into an era of enlightenment and reason. Unfortunately, after his death, his theories became tradition and dogma, and his own contributions were almost destroyed.

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