Ancient history? Lessons from Hippocrates' use of plants

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Evans, S 2015, 'Ancient history? Lessons from Hippocrates' use of plants', Journal of the New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists, Summer 2015, pp. 6-9.


Hippocrates is known as ‘the father of medicine’ and is popularly credited with the phrase ‘let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’. He has an important place in the history of many health professions, including herbalism, naturopathy and medicine. The focus of this article is recent research into the plant recipes of the Hippocratic Corpus, and the parallels between the philosophy of Hippocratic medicine and some common sense treatment assumptions of Western herbal medicine and naturopathy. While Hippocrates himself is understood to have been a Greek healer who lived on the island of Kos in the 5th century BCE, the Hippocratic Corpus is the product of many practitioners rather than of one man. Written over a period of 700 years, it is unclear whether Hippocrates wrote any of the collection of works that bears his name. For medical practitioners, Hippocrates is important as he is credited with introducing approaches to diagnosis and treatment which emphasised clinical observation, and rational rather than supernatural causes of disease. He is also associated with establishing expectations for high moral standards for practitioners. However, for herbalists these writings hold additional interest. Hippocratic practitioners documented the use of local plants and simple plant preparations to treat their patients, and their diagnostic and treatment focus was not only on clinical observation and rationality, but also on the idea that balance is the cornerstone of health. Health maintenance and treatment of ill-health required active patient involvement and, ultimately, responsibility. Recent research locates herbalists and their patients for whom these issues and perspectives – local plants, simple interventions, a holistic and balanced approach to health – are highly relevant (Bitcon, Evans, & Avila, 2015; Nissen, 2015).