Hippocrates Timeless Still

My article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 

J R Soc Med. 2013 Jul;106(7):288-92

can also be read in full here in the James Lind Library online


The special interest in each person’s particular characteristics distinguishes Hippocratic medicine significantly from modern medicine. Hippocrates put the person at the center of his attention, while modern medicine focuses on the disease. Hippocrates was first and foremost interested in finding out what led to the development of the symptoms experienced by the person. He distinguished lifestyle patterns and personal characteristics that predisposed to certain conditions. Although modern medicine is increasingly accepting the importance of lifestyle in the development of chronic diseases, it continues to give priority to examining the illness and treating the symptoms. Hippocratic therapies involved primarily changes in food, exercise and other lifestyle patterns while modern medical treatments concentrate on pharmacological and surgical interventions.

In The Art, the writer gives general advice on how a patient should be treated. He explains that medical treatment consists of much more than drugs:

The most famous doctors cure by changing the diet and lifestyle of their patient and, by using other substances. Such capable doctors have the knowledge and ability to use 
the therapeutic properties of most natural or man-made products (The Art 2.6; Jones 1923)



Hippocrates and Darwin


In 1868, Charles Darwin, already famous for his radical theory on evolution, made a surprising admission, acknowledging the similarities between his theories and those of Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician of the 5th century BC. In reply to a letter, now unfortunately lost,  sent by Dr William Ogle (Superintendent of Statistics to the Registrar-General) Darwin declares the following:

…I wish I had known of these views of Hippocrates before I had published, for they seem almost identical with mine – merely a change of terms – and an application of them to classes of facts necessarily unknown to the old philosopher. The whole case is a good illustration of how rarely anything is new.

…Hippocrates has taken the wind out of my sails, but I care very little about being forestalled. I advance the views merely as a provisional hypothesis, but with the secret expectation that sooner or later some such view will have to be admitted.

…I do not expect the reviewers will be so learned as you otherwise, no doubt, I shall be accused of wilfully stealing Pangenesis from Hippocrates, for this is the spirit some reviewers delight to show (Darwin 1887, p 82).

Having grown up in a family of doctors and having attended medical school only to drop out after a couple of years, Darwin may have had some knowledge of the Hippocratic writings. He however denies it in his letter, leaving us only to guess whether he had read any of the books in the Corpus. 

Darwin F (ed) (1887). The Life and Letter of Charles Darwin, Vol II. (John Murray Publ., London)