October 22, 2013

Asmis speaks on advances, drawbacks of Ancient Greek medicine

Department of Classics Professor Elizabeth Asmis surveyed the triumphs and failures of ancient Greek medicine during her talk, “Medical Healing in Ancient Greece and Rome,” at Humanities Day on Saturday.

Asmis opened her talk by reading over the Hippocratic Oath, a two-part document aimed at reassuring the patient that the physician’s primary intent is to do no harm. Written by the Greek physician Hippocrates, it was later adapted into the 1948 Declaration of Geneva.

Asmis then spoke on the Hippocratic concept of disease, which signaled a huge shift in the idea of the relationship between humans and gods.

“Hippocratic doctors believed that a disease was a natural event with a natural cause that could be therefore be cured by humans,” said Asmis. “Disease has nothing to do with god or any supernatural force; it is not a reward or affliction imposed by god or magician.”

Hippocratic medicine was composed of three key components: diet, exercise, and drugs. The drugs were purgatives, used to withdraw yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. For blood, leeches were used.

During the talk, Asmis touched on several humorous treatments used by the ancient Greeks for illnesses that continue to exist today, such as obesity. After reading their recommendation that fat individuals wanting to lose weight should eat a meat full of fat and seasoned with sesame seeds, Asmis remarked, “Well, here is the original Atkins diet.”

Asmis also read from Epidemics, a treatise written in the fifth century that pooled observations made by diverse physicians. She highlighted the significance of these observations, which served as seminal documents introducing a new facet of science.

“There is something very remarkable about them [the cases], and that is the precision and detail of the observations,” she said. “The physician’s goal is to distinguish the kinds of diseases in order to figure out the kinds of remedies that might work. He is working on the empirical forefront of the science.”