Hippocrates vs. Harvey
In two thousand years, everything can change. Two thousand years ago, the Romans ruled the Western world with an iron fist. Now, Italy sits in the shadow of its more powerful neighbors, previous Roman colonies such as England and Germany. Two thousand years ago, Jesus was crucified at Golgotha. Two thousand years later, Christianity has an estimated 2.2 billion followers. Similarly, in the year 370 with the death of Hippocrates, people understood the body as a complex mixture of humors that combined with the elements of their world. Nearly two thousand years later, in the sixteenth century, William Harvey completely revolutionized the world’s understanding of the body. Although they both studied the nature of the body and its functions, Hippocrates and Harvey differed greatly in their opinions; Hippocrates believed in the external views of the body, and concentrated on humeral medicine, while Harvey looked inside the body to decipher its inner workings.
Hippocrates was born in 460 BCE in Greece, in a land where mythology and mystery surrounded the medical tradition. Hippocrates began examining patients and dissecting animals, meticulously documenting his experiences. Over time, he managed to compile his beliefs into what became the staple for absolute medical truth for the next few thousand years.
William Harvey was born in 1578 in England. Like Hippocrates’ world, Harvey’s medical colleagues followed a bizarre combination of Hippocrates’ teachings and fields like astrology, religion and herbal cures. However, the new trend of human dissection allowed Harvey, for one of the first times, to look into the human body’s inner workings. There, he found much physical evidence that contradicted Hippocrates’ age old traditions. For fear of rejection from his colleagues, Harvey kept his findings secret for years, but eventually complied and released his perfect notes and drawings in his book, “De Mortu Cortus,” or, “On the Motion of the Heart and Blood.” These writing would lead future philosophers to follow his discoveries of the body and set the road to modern medicine.
Hippocrates’ “The Nature of Man” and Harvey’s “De Mortu Cortus” were extremely different, but they were especially different in the manner in which they studied the body. Hippocrates’ views on the human body came from external views and observations of the sick. In the ancient world, excepting Alexandria, human dissection was considered amoral and taboo, and as such Hippocrates was unable to look inside the human body to examine the makeup of humans. So, he found two ways to study the body. Firstly, he dissected animals such as pigs and dogs (pigs were an especially good choice because of their anatomical similarity to humans) For example, in “The Nature of Man,” Hippocrates notes, “In those cases where there is a spontaneous discharge of bloody urine, it indicates rupture of a small vein in the kidneys.” We know that Hippocrates did not discover ruptured kidneys from fresh corpses, and so it indicates that such a discovery came from the dissection of an animal. Hippocrates’ knowledge of organs mostly came from his examinations of animals, for there was no other way for him to examine the body’s insides. Secondly, Hippocrates examined the external discharges of patients in order to discern what was happening on the inside, mostly using Humeral medicine. In “The Nature of Man,” Hippocrates explains humeral medicine in that, “The human body contains blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These are the things that make up its constitution and cause its pains and health…Pain occurs when one of the substances presents either a deficiency or an excess…” (Medicine and Western Civilization, p. 43) In other words, humeral medicine is the idea that there are four humors that make up the body, and every ailment is due to an imbalance of one of those humors. Hippocrates’ diagnoses were based off examining the excretions of his patients, and...
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