Hippocrates The “Father of Medicine”

Bust of HippocratesEver hear of Hippocratic Corpus? Probably not, so let us explain. Hippocratic Corpus AKA Hippocratic Collection is a collection of medical essays attributed to the great Greek physician of antiquity – Hippocrates!

Born around 460 BC on the Greek island Cos, he led medicine away into an era of observation and diagnosis and attributing people’s illnesses to be naturally occurring, and was the result of a number of external factors; such as environmental factors, diet, and lifestyle choices. 

Twelfth-century Byzantine manuscript the Hippocratic Oath written in the form of a cross
Twelfth-century Byzantine manuscript the Hippocratic Oath written in the form of a cross

His documents outline discussions within a variety of fields of medicine, including attending to numerous illnesses, as well as detailing theories of medicine via his observations. Hippocrates was also akin to helping people who are ill in an ethical manner; hence, the Hippocratic Oath was born and is the oath that physicians still take today. In a nutshell, western society’s ethical practice of medicine is greatly attributed to this Greek doctor and his writings of Hippocratic Corpus.

Before Hippocrates

Ancient medicine was prescribed to the belief that diseases were caused by superstitions and gods, and there was the Greek god of medicine – Asclepius, who was one of the sons of Apollo. The snake that is entwined along the staff remains a symbol of modern medicine. It is called The Rod of Asclepius. You may have seen an illustration of this staff in medical publications and/or hospitals.

Hippocrates, often called the “father of medicine,” took a different approach.

With that said, it is important to recognize that Hippocratic medicine and its philosophies are far removed from modern medicine and largely inaccurate. During his time, the Greek taboo forbade the dissection of humans, and as such, Greek doctors at the time knew next to nothing about human anatomy. It was difficult, if not impossible, to determine when diseases materialized and how to diagnose the symptoms of a virus. 

Asclepius - Greek God of Medicine
Asclepius – Greek God of Medicine. Wikimedia

Despite the many aspects of Hippocratic medicine that did not stand the test of time, one of his greatest contributions was his dedication to observation and documentation. Not only would he and his followers take careful, regular notes, but also extended clinical observations into family history and environment. These records were recorded in a clear, objective manner so they could be passed down and used by other physicians. 

Because few documents have survived, it can be difficult to pinpoint what is fact and what is reverential storytelling. For instance, while the Hippocratic Oath is attributed to Hippocrates, new information shows it may actually have been written after his death. 

Unfortunately, after his death, little improvements were made to the practice of medicine as many considered his teachings too great to be altered; however, his name remains in the healthcare field and is so labeled “The Hippocratic Oath”.



Medical Treatments of Antiquity  

Surgical instruments of the 16th and 17th centuries.
“Surgical instruments of the 16th and 17th centuries.” is licensed under CC BY 4.0

You should be glad you don’t live in the days of antiquity when it comes to healthcare. One can only imagine what techniques they had to use. 

Let’s just say you wouldn’t want to get a toothache or your tonsils taken out during this period. Take a look at the photo on the left and you get the idea!

So now we’ll take a look at what people utilized (and some are still used today) to help people with medical problems back in the day.

Ancient Egypt

One of the first civilizations to deviate from the ‘medicine men’ and seek actual ‘doctors’ that could help those who were ailing was the Egyptians. Although they were referred to as doctors (Egyptians who specialized in healing human illnesses), they concentrated mainly on potions to cure their illnesses. 

Information related to Egyptian physicians dates back as far as 2600 BC when King Zozer had a doctor who was very well respected and Iraj, who was the physician to the court of pharaohs around 1500 BC. 

Ebers Papyrus - Anitque Medical Document
Papyrus Ebers is an Egyptian medical scroll dating to circa 1550 BC

During this time period, these potion doctors gradually began to develop an understanding of the human body and began more detailed and thorough research.

Archeologists were able to assemble this information via hieroglyphics and papyrus writings, which are documents that were created from papyrus plants.

One of the most intriguing discoveries was the Papyrus Ebers. An Egyptian medical manuscript of herbal knowledge that was written entirely on papyrus paper and dates back to 1550 BC. It contains much information regarding the Egyptian interpretation of the anatomy of the human body.

Although Egyptians could be considered the original civilization to take knowledge of the human body, they still believed that many of the diseases were from spirits.

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages is the period in Europe that followed the collapse of Roman civilization in the 5th century up to the period of the Renaissance, beginning around the 13th century.

Scholars have researched historical artifacts of how doctors cared for their patients during this period and the instruments they used were crude to say the least. Below are two tools that were used during this time to help the physically ill.

Bullet Extractor

This tool was used to remove bullets or other objects that were inserted into the body due to accident or intentionally from firearms. As these types of ballistic weapons were becoming more popular to fight wars, medical doctors were working feverishly to find ways to help the wounded.

The extractor was a rod with a turn screw that could be adjusted to size in order to capture and clasp the bullet and pull it out.

Arrow Remover

This was designed with a similar extraction method as the bullet extractor but used to remove arrows. There is not a lot of information from research done for this device, but no doubt it was created before the bullet extractor was.

Medical Equipment of the 18th Century

The ‘Antique Brass Nursing Breast Shield’ was a unique device used to cover the breasts of a nursing mother in order to protect her breast and nipples from inflammation and/or soreness.

When there was no other choice but to remove a limb, the ‘Amputation Knife’ was the primary tool that was used. Of course, with today’s medical technology, the whole process of amputation would probably be avoided, but not in the 1700s  where many more diseases were prominent among the population.

The practice was to remove the infected limb with this knife and then leave a part of the remaining skin to cover the wound.

For operations, a slightly more sophisticated tool called ‘The Scarificator’ was used. It had 14 blades under the tool’s surface and when brought to the patient, the blades would release to open the skin and the medical procedure would begin.

Medical Equipment of the Early 20th Century

Old forceps and medical scissors in steel tray.
Old forceps and medical scissors in a steel tray

The 20th century witnessed a revolution of advanced medical technology, not to mention it was a time that was benefiting from the industrial revolution.

Advances not only in medicine but in math, physics, engineering, and electronics began to materialize. This took society out of the ‘dark ages’, especially in the medical field, and allowed us to live more comfortably and be able to survive through more ethical and less painful medical procedures.

But in the early years of the century, old 19th century and even 18th-century techniques and equipment were still being used. Some of these procedures and equipment are mentioned below.

For those with external hemorrhoid problems, this 1900 device called hemorrhoid forceps was the medical tool of choice. It was used to damage the hemorrhoidal tissue so that it would not return. Internal hemorrhoids required a more coarse method of hooks and scissors.

Dr. Dettweiler, a physician in the 1910 time period developed a Pocket Spittoon used for patients who had coughing issues. They would spit into the jar and were used by Dr. Dettweiler to research tuberculosis with the hope of containing the spread of this contagious disease.

Large Glass Syringe
Large Glass Syringe

In the 1920s, we saw a device that was used to remove defective veins. It was called Allen and Hanburys Varicose Vein Strippers and consisted of a flexible wire that would be moved up the vein. Then the vein was removed by pulling on the other end of the wire. Not a very classy method of operation, indeed.


Medicines of Antiquity

Similar to our discussion in Medical treatments of Antiquity, proving medicine during these periods was just as crude. Let’s take a look back as to what drugs were used to “cure” people with health ailments.

Salicylic Acid


Chemical breakdown of Salicylic acid
Biochemist writes Synthesis of acetylsalicylic acid concept.

Salicylic acid belongs to a class that falls into the category of drugs known as salicylates, which are natural chemicals found in plants, as well as fruits and vegetables. It is mother nature’s way of protecting plants from disease and insects.

Popular among the Native Americans, specifically the Cherokees, Salicylic acid was used to help people who had a fever, pain relievers, and related illnesses. It was not the plant itself, but the bark of the plant that was used.

Salicylic acid is a monohydroxybenzoic acid and is also found in plants in Europe. In the middle of the 19th century, Europeans mass-produced salicylic acid for use as a painkiller. It was considered the predecessor to modern-day aspirin and it is most popular today to decrease redness and swelling on the skin, which subsequently helps remove pimples.


Despite it being a powder of death, arsenic was used in the Victorian era as a beauty cream. It has also been known to be used by the Chinese for medical purposes, but arsenic is a clear white odorless powder. Not the most effective treatments for facial creams or anything else for that matter.


Quinine has been used by the Chinese for centuries for malaria but has some side effects, such as headache, ringing in the ears, eyesight issues, and sweating. It can also cause you to get sunburnt more easily. Additional side effects may include deafness, low blood platelets, and a possible irregular heartbeat.  Studies on pregnancies are so far been inconclusive.

Quinine is derived from the plant Artemisia annua, where the drug Artemisinin was extracted. This antimalarial drug has been used ever since the 1940s. It was even tested during the early stages of covid to see if this drug can help with preventing the virus from infecting us.

Snake Oil

Snake Oil in a Bottle
Photo by R+R Medicinals on Unsplash

Snake Oil became a popular remedy for sore aches and pains. Originally used by the Chinese when they immigrated to America to work on the railroad and then used by the citizens as well.

During this time, the Choctaw Native Americans were also using snake oil for medical reasons. This ‘remedy’ stayed popular all the way up to the early 20th century. 


The Listerine name came from Joseph Lister, a 19th-century English physician who used antiseptics during surgery.

Lister’s son marketed the product and then Jordan Lambert, the co-founder of the Warner-Lambert drug firm started selling it in the late 1800s.

Targeted as a mouthwash for sale in 1915, thousands purchased it mainly to rid themselves of bad breath.


One of the first syringes to be used were all glass syringes and a pioneer in researching the manufacture of this device was Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), founded in 1897 by Maxwell W. Becton and Fairleigh S. Dickinson and the company is around with nearly 30,000 employees in over 50 countries. They were also a pioneer in the manufacture of hypodermic needles.

In 1924, Becton, Dickinson produced a syringe designed specifically for insulin injection. In 1924, they introduced the BD Yale Luer-Lok Syringe, (see below), designed by Fairleigh Dickinson, Sr. The Luer-Lok provided a simple method of attaching and removing the needle to and from the syringe. Now called ‘Luer Lock’ connectors, they remain the standard for syringes in the U.S.

Vapo-Cresolene Vaporizer

Vapo-Cresolene Vaporizor consisting of lamp and stand, for the treatment of respiratory complaints, in original carton, by Vapo-Cresolene Company, U.S.A. Object alongside box, full view on black background.
“Vaporizer, New York, United States, 1880-1893 (vaporizer)” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Coal tar is a mixture used to make coal into gas. This ingredient was used extensively in the late 19th century for all kinds of products, including ointments, shampoos, and medicines. One popular product that entered the market in 1879 was “Vapo-Cresolene”, which was used as a vaporizer to cure respiratory diseases; such as pneumonia, whooping cough, and diphtheria, as well as a host of other ailments. It came with a lamp that was used to heat the liquid cresol with an open flame.

In 1908, studies from the American Medical Association disputed these claims, but nevertheless, the product continued to be sold anyway up to the 1950s.

Interesting are the instructions shown in the image above and rewritten below:

Fill the lamp with the best Kerosene (Petroleum) Oil obtainable. Alcohol will explode the lamp if used in it. Light the lamp allowing as large a flame as possible; but care be taken for the first fifteen minutes to see that it does not smoke. Place the lamp under the Vaporizor. Place the Vaporizor in a tin or crockery dish to guard against overturning, and set the same on a table near the bed, but out of reach of small children. Lastly, fill the movable cup with Cresolene. Tarry sediment remaining in the cup may be removed with alcohol. “Cresolene should be vaporized in a bedroom of ordinary size and the doors and windows should be kept closed while the Vaporizor is in use. In oppressive weather a window may be open for ventilation. The most convenient time to use the Vaporizor is at night. The cup full of Cresolene is generally sufficient for a night’s treatment. The most delicate child or person in good health experiences no injury. Large doses of whisky, vinegar, Epsom or Glauber Salts should be given once if Cresolene is swallowed or if it falls one the skin, apply cinegar [SIC]or alcohol. The odor of Cresolene will soon pass away if the room is thoroughly aired during the day. Cresolene imparts a burning sensation to the skin and is poisonous if taken internally, it should therefore, be kept out of reach of children.”.