‘Treating the Patient, Not Just the Disease’: Reading Ancient Medicine in Modern Holistic Medicine

King, Helen (2021). ‘Treating the Patient, Not Just the Disease’: Reading Ancient Medicine in Modern Holistic Medicine. In: Thumiger, Chiara ed. Holism in Ancient Medicine and its Reception. Leiden: Brill, pp. 402–424.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004443143_018


This chapter explores the uses made by modern holistic medicine of Hippocratic texts and of a broader idea of what they contain. Both orthodox and alternative medicines use Hippocrates either to project an ideal of what medicine should be, or to create a story of medical progress. The term ‘holistic’ is used in a wide range of ways, often seen as a quality of the past which has been lost as modern medicine has become more specialised; related to this are both the holistic healer’s combination of a variety of different forms of healing, and the claim that ancient Greek medicine is valid for all times and regions. Those claiming Hippocratic origins for their method of healing demonstrate how authority is constructed both in print and online; online, the Wikipedia Hippocrates page continues to have enormous impact for orthodox medicine as well. Plato’s representation of Hippocrates giving priority to ‘the whole’ has surprisingly little overt influence, while wording often attributed to Osler, about treating the patient rather than the disease, has shifted to being something said by Hippocrates. While in previous generations the focus has been on finding the Hippocratic treatise that best fits one’s own views, and presenting this as the work of Hippocrates himself, today there is less interest in the texts and more in the supposed personality of Hippocrates and his attention to the powers of ‘Nature.’

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