Medicine in ancient Greece - Overview
This lesson provides a brief look at the origins of Greek medicine and a comparison with modern medicine. Also included is an edited text of the Hippocratic Oath.
A lesson plan for grade 6 Social Studies
- recognize the foundations of modern medicine in ancient Greece.
- compare ancient Greek medical practices with those of today.
- describe the relationship between modern and ancient medicine as well as describe the development of medicine from ancient to modern medicine.
Time required for lesson
The lesson text contains the text needed with a set of open-ended questions at the end. No other materials are needed.
None, but if you have internet access, you could assign a research project looking at medical schools today and their entrance requirements and courses of study.
Students should be studying ancient Greece and incorporate this in as a way to tie ancient and modern together.
Greek Medical Training
In the late 6th century B.C., two Greek city-states were famous for their doctors, those of Croton (in Southern Italy) and Cyrene (in Northern Africa). But in the fifth century the most famous centers were Cos, the birthplace of Hippocrates, and Cnidus, just opposite Cos on the mainland of Asia Minor. They developed flourishing medical schools. These schools became the main centers for the teaching of medicine, and the doctors associated with either place shared certain medical practices. The instruction in these schools was very informal, compared to now. No set term was made to the period of training that a medical student should undergo, nor at the end of it did he obtain a certificate of his right to practice. So far as is known no legal or general method existed to prevent an amateur, an inadequately trained apprentice, or a quack from practicing. His establishing himself as a doctor depended not on how he had been trained, but on his own conscience, the reputation he acquired in practice, and keeping the confidence of his clients.
It may appear strange that the Greeks, after raising medicine to a new level, didn’t have some way that they could protect themselves from those physicians who had no clue about what they were doing. But if you think about two circumstances typical of the Greek world, it will show you that it is not to be thought of as weird.
- The apprentice system, in which Greek crafts were organized, is a self-policing one. That is, that each of the masters (actual physicians) would watch the apprentices and make sure they were able to do their job.
- The fragmentation of the Greek world into its hundreds of independent states made almost impossible the kind of system that alone could have provided a check upon the medical profession. The physician, practicing as an individual, offered too great a problem. The Hippocratic Oath may have provided some kind of evidence of completed training. Also, attendance at one of the schools, usually that of Cos, would provide evidence as to the doctor’s qualifications. As part of “liberal” learning, medicine would be a matter of lectures and books, of theory and political speculation. After all of this training most free physicians would go receive instruction in the theoretical aspects of their craft at an organized school.
The Hippocratic Oath
“I swear by Apollo the physician and Aesculapius, and Health, and all the gods and goddesses, that, according to my ability and judgment, I will keep this Oath and this requirement — to treat him who taught me this Art equally dear to me as my parents, to share my substance with him, and relieve his burdens if required; to look upon his children in the same way as my own brothers, and to teach them this art, if they shall wish to learn it, without fee; and that by every mode of instruction, I will share a knowledge of the Art to disciples bound by oath according to the law of medicine, but to none others. I will follow that system of which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and avoid whatever is unhealthy. I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest. With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and practice my Art. Into whatever houses I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the sick, and will avoid every act of mischief. Whatever in connection with my professional service I see or hear which ought not to be secret, I will keep secret. While I continue to keep this Oath, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and the practice of the art, respected by all men, in all times. But should I trespass and violate this Oath, may the reverse happen to me.”
Greek Medical Practice
In general, Greek doctors practiced privately, with occasional employment by a city-state for a year at a time. And to be sure that the doctors didn’t make too much money, they were ordered to, when necessary, treat their patients without payment. The usual rule was that doctors charged their patient for their services. While some doctors were permanently resident in a particular city, a large number traveled from place to place in search of a living and in response to the demand for doctors. The insecure position of the doctor is reflected in many features of Greek medical practices. Therefore, one of the goals of the diagnosis is to impress the patient and win his confidence. The Greek doctors would try to tell their patients not only what was going to happen to them but also their present and past symptoms. The practice of prognosis was evidently an important psychological weapon in the battle to win the patients’ confidence. By realizing and announcing beforehand which patients were going to die, he would avoid any blame.
Modern Medical Practice
Modern medical practice has some similarity to its roots in ancient Greece. Doctors still have a liberal education and take all sorts of classes. They also do lots of reading. After spending four years in college to get a degree, they take at least another four years of college classes that involve in-depth study of medicine and practicing with doctors in an internship. In the internship, the student doctor learns from the master doctor by watching and assisting with actual medical cases. After successfully completing the internship, the new doctor graduates and can start practicing medicine on his own.
Exploring Ancient Greek Medicine
- Greek doctors did not have to get licenses like doctors do today. So, how did they control the doctor’s training? Compare the way doctors learn their practice today with the way doctors learned their practice 2500 years ago in Greece. What is similar and what is different?
- The Hippocratic Oath is still used today. It’s a doctor’s pledge to do the best job possible for the patient. Read over the Hippocratic Oath and describe what the doctor pledges to do and pledges not to do (specifically).
- What did ancient Greek doctors do to get patients? Compare that with how doctors get patients today.
- How did ancient Greek doctors live? Compare that with how doctors live today.
Class discussion before and during reading will help. Then, assess questions based upon thoroughness and accuracy of responses. Encourage students to respond with careful and detailed answers.
Use in conjunction with other Greek studies lesson plans available online.
- North Carolina Essential Standards
- Social Studies (2010)
- 6.C.1 Explain how the behaviors and practices of individuals and groups influenced societies, civilizations and regions. 6.C.1.1 Analyze how cultural expressions reflected the values of civilizations, societies and regions (e.g. oral traditions, art, dance,...
- 6.H.2 Understand the political, economic and/or social significance of historical events, issues, individuals and cultural groups. 6.H.2.1 Explain how invasions, conquests, and migrations affected various civilizations, societies and regions (e.g. Mongol invasion,...
- Social Studies (2010)
North Carolina curriculum alignment
Social Studies (2003)
- Goal 4: The learner will identify significant patterns in the movement of people, goods and ideas over time and place in South America and Europe.
- Objective 4.03: Examine key ethical ideas and values deriving from religious, artistic, political, economic, and educational traditions, as well as their diffusion over time, and assess their influence on the development of selected societies and regions in South America and Europe.