HIPPOCRATIC USE OF DRUGS

(Translations are from the Loeb Hippocrates series)

There is no book devoted solely to pharmacology in the Hippocratic Corpus, and few of the treatises provide directions for treatment. The books dealing with general medicine that do discuss treatment rely generally on diet as a therapy; in those that do specify other treatment, these seem to develop out of, and to be used in conjunction with, dietary measures.
 

In fact, the author of Ancient Medicine attributes the discovery of medicine to experiments in treating natural products to make them more suitable for human consumption, by "steeping, winnowing, grinding and sifting, kneading, baking ... combining the weaker components so as to adapt all to the constitution and power of man." (III, tr. W.H.S.Jones) Regimen in Acute Diseases gives detailed instructions for various forms and uses of gruel (which, despite its innocuous sound, also has its dangers -- the doctor warns that untimely use of gruel without first purging the patient, or use of unstrained gruel, can be fatal) (XVI, XVII)

Hippocratic treatment was based upon the principle that all foods have properties that react on the body. Some cool, others heat, some are soothing, and some offer dramatic evidence for their "effectiveness" (purges, emetics). For example, Diseases III, 17 gives numerous recipes for ardent fever, first advising: "...they have many effects, some are diuretic, others laxative, others both, and others neither, merely cooling as if some one were to pour cold water over a vessel of boiling water, or were to move the vessel itself into the cold air. Give different ones to different patients, for the sweet ones do not benefit everyone, nor do the astringent ones, nor are all patients able to drink the same things." (tr. Paul Potter)
 

In most cases, drugs, when they appear, are mingled with dietary suggestions, and it seem that the Hippocratic doctor saw little distinction, since all have properties and effects on the body. Thus Internal Affections 1 suggests, "...give him for breakfast fine cereals and main dishes of the heartiest kinds, have him drink the same wine. Also, give him roots effective against tears: grate centaury over wine; grate dragon arum [shavings] over wine, too, and give it. For the cough, grate dragon arum into honey, and give this to the patient to take." (tr. Paul Potter) In Epidemics VII.80 a fever is said to have come down from "the drink made from coarse barley meal, sometimes from apple and pomegranate juice and juice from toasted lentils, cold." (tr. Wesley Smith) In the recipe given in Internal Affections 6, only silphium juice (because of its rarity) would probably not qualify as an everyday nutrient: "...early in the morning let the patient drink in the fasting state silphium juice, to the amount of a vetch, in melicrat or in wine and honey, eat garlic and radishes, and on top of that take dry white or dark wine unmixed with water; let him again take these things with his meal and after it." (tr. Paul Potter)
 

On the other hand, a few books are more therapeutically oriented. For example, Diseases III prescribes a number of non-foods as expectorants, including, "...equal amounts of white hellebore, thapsia, and fresh squirting-cucumber juice....Alternatively... give a cheramys each of cuckoo-pint, dauke and stinging nettle, good pinches of mustard and rue, and silphium joice in the amount of a bean; mix these in sweetened vineagar and water, sieve, and give warm to the fasting patient." (tr. Paul Potter)
 

Uses of these plants from The Pla nt Tracker:   link


  The more pharmaceutically-oriented books include the two major gynaecological works, Diseases of Women, and On the Nature of Women. These include many recipes for remedies, which may be written records of previously orally transmitted folklore, much of it passed along by women in their treatment of illnesses in the household, and focussed especially on women's concerns. Control of the menses was obviously of importance, since the Greeks saw their blockage as presenting both a mortal threat to women and a risk to their companions (sufferers might seek to strangle themselves or murderously attack others). Therefore emenogogues (drugs to bring on the menses) were frequently prescribed. Many of these could also have been used to speed a slow or inadequate labor, or to end an unwanted pregnancy. We often cannot tell how they were intended to be used, but many such "multi-purpose" recipes appear in the gynaeocological works. John Riddle has done much interesting research on the ingredients of these, many of which -- rue, pennyroyal (one of the family of mints), pomegranate seeds, ivy, belladonna (a member of the nightshade family) -- have properties that would have made them effective in the right dosages (and possibly fatal otherwise).

A number of other members of the nightshade family, which we would classify clearly as drugs, were used as well, about half the time for their narcotic effect. Opium makes 21 appearances in the gynaecological treatises, mostly in drinks to be used for the Wandering Womb or other uterine troubles.
 

Another characteristic of the gynaeocological treatises is their use of "excrement therapy." Heinrich von Staden has drawn attention to the fact that ninety-nine percent of all references of the use of such materials occur in the gynaecological works. He suggests that this constitutes an element of Hippocratic continuity with ritual: "Here the Hippocratic healer of the womb partially resembles those very 'purifiers' and magicians' whom the celebrated author of On Sacred Disease excoriates." (von Staden, 20).
 

In conclusion, we can say, with the author of Affections 45, that Hippocratic therapy was, with some notable exceptions, based on effects that were empirically determined and in harmony with rationalized beliefs about the workings of the body and the causes of illness: "About medications that are drunk or applied to wounds it is worth learning from everyone; for people do not discover these by reasoning but by chance, and experts not more than laymen. But whatever is discovered in medicine by reasoning, whether about foods or about medications, you must learn from those that have discernment in the art, if you wish to learn anything." (tr. Paul Potter)
 

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SOME USEFUL BIBLIOGRAPHY

Riddle, John, J.Worth Estes, and Josiah C.Russell, "Birth Control in the Ancient World," Archaeology 47.2 (1994) 29-35

Riddle, John, "Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine: Recognition of Drugs in Classical Antiquity," in John Scarborough, ed. Folklore and Folk Medicines, Madison, Wisconsin, 1987
 

Riddle, John, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Cambridge, MA 1992
 

Lewis, Walter, Medical Botany: Plants affecting man's health. New York, 1977.
 

Moisan, Monica, "Les plantes narcotiques dan le Corpus Hippocraticum," in P.Potter, G.Maloney, J.Desautels, La maladie et les maladies dans la Corpus Hippocraticum, Quebec, 1990, 381-91.
 

von Staden, Heinrich, "Women and Dirt," Helios 19 (1992) 7-30.