Ancient Greek Medicine for Kids
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Kidipede is a history and science encyclopedia for kids, with more than 2000 pages of expert answers to your questions.


Ancient Greek Medicine

Blood-letting
A Greek doctor letting blood out of a patient

Disease was a very serious problem for the Greeks, as for all other people in the ancient and medieval worlds. One out of three babies died before they were a year old. Half of all children died before they were ten. And even most people who grew up died in their forties and fifties.

So the Greeks were very interested in using scientific observation and logic to figure out what caused diseases and what you could do about them. In the 300s BC and afterward, in the Hellenistic period, Greek doctors worked out a logical system for understanding disease. The main collection of writings about Greek medicine is the Hippocratic Writings, named after the first and most famous of these doctors, Hippocrates (hih-POH-krat-ees).

Leech
A leech

This logical system began with the idea of humors, which was popular all over Europe and Asia at this time, in India and China as well as Greece. The doctors believed that people were made out of four substances: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm (pronounced FLEM) (means boogers). If you were healthy, that was because your four humors were balanced. You had the right amount of each one. But if you had too much of one humor, you would be unbalanced and you would feel ill. For instance, if you had too much blood, that would give you a fever. So your medical treatment should be to reduce the amount of blood in your body. Greek doctors did this by cutting your arm until blood ran out. This was supposed to help bring down your fever. Or they put leeches on your arm to suck the extra blood out. They did this so often that doctors were sometimes called "leeches". And they thought it was such a good idea that doctors were still letting blood about 150 years ago!

Greek doctors also believed that some climates tended to increase the amount of some humors in your body. If you lived in a wet, cold climate, that would tend to increase the amount of phlegm, for instance. One treatment might be to move to a drier, warmer climate to balance out your humors again.

These ideas are all wrong (as the Islamic doctor Al Razi pointed out about 900 AD), but the idea that you could learn to understand and treat diseases by using careful observation and logical thought, is very important to modern medicine.

To find out more about Greek medicine, check out these books from Amazon or from your library:

Greek and Roman Science, by Don Nardo (1998). Nardo has written a lot of good books about the ancient world for kids; this one is no exception.

Hippocratic Writings, by Hippocrates and others. Translated by G.E.R. Lloyd. What the Greeks themselves had to say about medical theory and practice.

Hippocrates, by Jacques Jouanna and M. B. Devevoise (1999). A commentary on the Hippocratic writings and Greek medicine in general, for adults.

Roman medicine
History of Medicine
Greek science
Ancient Greece
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