Hippocrates & Galenus

The humours 2nd century

Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’, was the first to seek explanations for mental illness in the lack of balance between the four bodily humours instead of in evil, supernatural powers. This view was copied and used by Galenus in the 2nd century.

To Hippocrates (ca. 460 B.C.-370 B.C.), the ‘Father of Medicine’, mental illness, just like other illnesses, was the result of the four bodily humours being out of balance. Therefore, he regarded mental illness simply as a consequence of purely physical processes. He wrote about epilepsy, known then as the divine illness: ‘it appears to me to be nowise more divine nor more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause, the same as other affections.’ His biological ideas about the nature of mental illness made him the first person to break away from previous explanations – that it was due to the anger of the gods. Galen (131-211 A.D.) adopted most of Hippocrates’ ideas about mental illness. He was the Roman emperor’s personal physician, and would remain the absolute authority in Western medicine until deep into the Middle Ages.

However, Hippocrates’ ideas were not generally accepted in Greek society. Few Greeks thought it implausible that Sophocles’ Ajax was made mad by the Goddess Athena, and consequently slaughtered sheep thinking that they were the enemy. Most Greeks and Romans tended to seek salvation from Asklepios. They preferred to steer clear of the cold and hot baths, the bloodletting, the purges and the other somatic remedies prescribed by Hippocrates and Galen.