Medicine and the senses: humours, potions and spells

King, Helen and Toner, Jerry (2014). Medicine and the senses: humours, potions and spells. In: Toner, Jerry ed. A Cultural History of the Senses in Antiquity, 500 BCE-500 CE. A Cultural History of the Senses. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 139–161.



"I find that a bad head cold clears up if the sufferer kisses a mule on the nose," advises Pliny the Elder (Natural Histories 30.31). This kind of homespun remedy is not perhaps the kind of treatment we imagine when we think of ancient medicine. We expect cool and rational observations from the first men to have come close to what we call physicans, men such as Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicien." However, the figure of Hippocrates himself, idealized over much of the subsequent history of Western medicine as the clinical observer par excellence, envisaged sitting at the patient's bedside watching and working out what to do (with the resulting case histories providing a model of the inductive method), is more of a fabrication than a reality. Only a few hundred years after his death, stories already circulated in which Hippocrates cured the plague of Athens, found out why the philosopher Democritus behaved so oddly, and was approached by the king of Persia to heal a disease ravaging his empire (Pinault 1992). In fact, not one treatise of the seventy or so in the "Hippocratic corpus" can be attributed to the historical Hippocrates with any certainty, while his persona has been created by our expectations of what a doctor should be like.

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