Greco Roman Medicine (460 BC)

The first Greek medical school was founded on the Isle of Cos off the coast of Asia Minor around 600 BC. Born on the same island in 460 BC was the school’s most famous graduate, Hippocrates, author of the Hippocratic Oath and father of Greco?Roman medicine and pharmacy. Hippocrates believed the body possessed an in built healing capacity and physicians should work with this in built mechanism, not against it. “Hippocrates sang the praises of nature in many places at great length, considering nature to be wise, clever, and capable of doing what is necessary for the sick without resorting to medication. And, it is true that the physician should help nature, support it, and do nothing else but follow it.” (24) Hippocrates believed the first step to be taken in the preservation of health was a healthy regime: regular exercise and abstention from over?satiation and over?indulgence. Second to lifestyle issues was the role of vitality supporting medicines and food. (25) He left a list of over 400 plants that he used as medicine; many of them prescribed to bring the body back into balance and return it to a state of health. Aristotle, another Greek physician of note, lived between 384 and 322 BC. He set up a school of medicine in Athens known as the Lyceum. Presumably Aristotle’s medical philosophy and plant studies were based Hippocrates’s developments but none of his medical writings survived so his specific knowledge of medicinal plants is unknown. Theophrastus, who lived between 370 and 287 BC, was a student of Aristotle and inherited his drug garden. He wrote books, On the History of Plants and On the Causes of Plants, the first of which discusses 500 medicinal plants. The most complete catalogue of Greco?Roman medicine and the plants used by Greek physicians was written by Dioscorides around the year 60 A.D. Dioscorides was the surgeon to Roman Emperor Nero. He had the opportunity to study medicinal plants and gather information from local healers where ever the army travelled; he was stationed in Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, Spain, and France. At the end of his travels, Dioscorides wrote a book on pharmacology that was the definitive source of information for doctors in Europe from the time it was written until 1600 AD. In fact, Dioscorides’ book was translated from the Greek into many European languages and Arabic. Tonic plants mentioned in this book includes Aconite (Aconitum napelus), Aloe (Aloe socotrina), Dill (Anethum graveolens), Anise (Pimpinella anisum), Bitter Almond (Prunus dulcis var. amara), Juniper (Juniperus communis), Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Grape (Vitis vinifera), Wormwood (Artemisia vulgaris), Lichens (Cetraria islandica), Gentian (Gentiana officinalis), Mint (Mentha piperita), Lettuce (Lactuca vulgaris), Cardamom (Elateria cardamomum), and Cumin (Cuminum cyminum). The most prolific Greco?Roman physician was Galen, born in 130 AD in Pergamum. Physician to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, he was a master pharmacist with an incredible knowledge of medicinal plants. (5) Famous for his ability to combine medicinal drugs into compound drugs, the English derived “galenicals,” the word for compound drugs, from his name. Galen, who wrote thirty books on pharmacology, insisted a doctor must know his drugs and inspect them not once but thrice to make a positive identification. Like his forbearers, Galen believed that when in doubt as to what do with a certain disease the best course was to leave the patient to nature, which he considered to be sufficient to cure all illness. (26) Like Hippocrates, Galen believed wellness could be maintained through the stimulation of an in built capacity through certain remedies, specifically remedies that maintained proper liver function. Galen recommended an important vitality compound, Mithridates Treacle, which was compounded with raisins and used to increase resistance to a wide variety of debilitating circumstances including intentional and unintentional poisoning. Maimonides, a disciple of Galen, reports that Galen also recommended raisins to increase vitality through liver stimulation. “Galen has already explained that the preservation of a man’s health lies in the health of the liver; it colours the blood and increases its moistures, but it increases its heat, and if it does that too much it may burn the blood. …While vinegar weakens his strength, raisins, that are congenial to the liver, give it fats and nourishment. When the syrup is compounded of vinegar and raisins, we get the benefit of the vinegar and we prevent injury to the liver. We thus obtain the benefit of the raisins and we are saved from the increased heat. The syrup is so wonderful and good that it should be prepared. …Its function is to purify the blood, remove its turbidity and cleanse it of the gases that come from the black bile. It will expand the spirit and gladden it. It will chase away evil thoughts and feeling. …Your servant has not found any syrup equal to it, to gladden and strengthen the heart and give it power. It is mild and neither raises nor lowers the temperature and therefore can be taken at any time.” (27)