Humanities › History & Culture Hippocratic Method and the Four Humors Share Flipboard Email Print DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images History & Culture Ancient History and Culture Mythology & Religion Figures & Events Ancient Languages Greece Egypt Asia Rome American History African American History African History Asian History European History Genealogy Inventions Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By N.S. Gill Ancient History and Latin Expert M.A., Linguistics, University of Minnesota B.A., Latin, University of Minnesota N.S. Gill is a Latinist, writer, and teacher of ancient history and Latin. She has been featured by NPR and National Geographic for her ancient history expertise. our editorial process N.S. Gill Updated July 29, 2019 When today's doctors prescribe an antibiotic to fight infection, they are trying to put the patient's body back in balance. While the drugs and medical explanation may be new, this art of equilibrium has been practiced since Hippocrates' day. I do anatomize and cut up these poor beasts, he said to Hippocrates, to see the cause of these distempers, vanities, and follies, which are the burden of all creatures. - Democritus - The History of Melancholy Humors Corresponding With the Seasons and Elements In the Hippocratic corpus (believed not to be the work of a single man of that name) disease was thought to be caused by isonomia, the preponderance of one of the four bodily humors: Yellow Bile Black Bile Phlegm Blood Four humors matched the four seasons: Autumn: black bile Spring: blood Winter: phlegm Summer: yellow bile Each of the humors was associated with one of the four equal and universal elements: Earth Air Fire Water Posited by Empedocles: Aristotle, who used the image of wine to expose the nature of black bile. Black bile, just like the juice of grapes, contains pneuma, which provokes hypochondriac diseases like melancholia. Black bile like wine is prone to ferment and produce an alternation of depression and anger... -From Linet's The History of Melancholy Earth corresponds with black bile. Too much earth made one melancholic. Air corresponds with blood. Too much air, sanguine. Fire corresponds with yellow bile. Too much fire, choleric. Water corresponds with phlegm. Too much water, phlegmatic. Finally, each element/humor/season was associated with certain qualities. Thus yellow bile was thought of as hot and dry. Its opposite, phlegm (the mucus of colds), was cold and moist. Black Bile was cold and dry, while its opposite, blood was hot and moist. Black Bile: Cold and Dry Blood: Hot and Moist Phlegm: Cold and Moist Yellow Bile: Hot and Dry As a first step, the prudent Hippocratic physician would prescribe a regimen of diet, activity, and exercise, designed to void the body of the imbalanced humor. According to Gary Lindquester's History of Human Disease, if it was a fever--a hot, dry disease--the culprit was yellow bile. So, the doctor would try to increase its opposite, phlegm, by prescribing cold baths. If the opposite situation prevailed (as in a cold), where there were obvious symptoms of excess phlegm production, the regimen would be to bundle up in bed and drink wine. Resorting to Drugs If the regimen didn't work the next course would be with drugs, often hellebore, a potent poison that would cause vomiting and diarrhea, "signs" the imbalanced humor was eliminated. Observation of Anatomy We might assume such Hippocratic ideas sprang from speculation rather than experimentation, but observation played a key role. Furthermore, it would be simplistic to say ancient Greco-Roman doctors never practiced human dissection. If nothing else, doctors had anatomical experience dealing with war wounds. But especially during the Hellenistic period, there was extensive contact with the Egyptians whose embalming techniques involved removing bodily organs. In the third century, B.C. vivisection was permitted in Alexandria where living criminals may have been put to the knife. Still, we believe Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen, among others, only dissected animal bodies, not human. So man's internal structure was known primarily through analogy with animals, inferences from the externally visible structures, from natural philosophy, and from function. Evaluating the Humoral Theory Such ideas might seem far-fetched today, but Hippocratic medicine was a great advance over the supernatural model that had preceded it. Even if individuals had understood enough about contagion to realize rodents were involved somehow, it was still the Homeric Apollo, the mouse god, who caused it. The Hippocratic etiology based on nature permitted diagnosis and treatment of symptoms with something other than prayer and sacrifice. Besides, we rely on similar analogies today, in Jungian personality types and ayurvedic medicine, to name two. These men demonstrated that when the nutriment becomes altered in the veins by the innate heat, blood is produced when it is in moderation, and the other humours when it is not in proper proportion. - Galen, On the Natural Faculties Bk II Black Bile Cold and Dry Too much earth Melancholic Autumn Blood Hot and Moist Too much air Sanguine Sping Phlegm Cold and Moist Too much water Phlegmatic Winter Yellow Bile Hot and Dry Too much fire Choleric Summer Sources www.umich.edu/~iinet/journal/vol2no2/v2n2_The_History_of_Melancholy.html www.astro.virginia.edu/~eww6n/bios/HippocratesofCos.html] www.med.virginia.edu/hs-library/historical/antiqua/textn.htm accessed viator.ucs.indiana.edu/~ancmed/foundations.htm] www.med.virginia.edu/hs-library/historical/antiqua/stexta.htm www.med.virginia.edu/hs-library/historical/antiqua/stexta.htm Cite this Article Format mla apa chicago Your Citation Gill, N.S. "Hippocratic Method and the Four Humors." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/four-humors-112072. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). Hippocratic Method and the Four Humors. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/four-humors-112072 Gill, N.S. "Hippocratic Method and the Four Humors." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/four-humors-112072 (accessed June 14, 2021). copy citation They Died of What? Historic Causes of Death Using Shades of Red in Design Medicalization in Sociology Bad Essay Topics for College Admissions Crystal Meth Facts Köppen Climate Classification System Abortion in the Ancient and Premodern World Is 'First Do No Harm' Part of the Hippocratic Oath? Definition and Examples of the Middle Style in Rhetoric Why Teeth Turn Yellow (And Other Colors) 5 Air Masses That Determine U.S. Weather Systems Why Is Fire Hot? How Hot Is It? Color Change Chemistry Experiments Overview of the Desert Biome The Science of Itching and Why Scratching Feels So Good What Is Viscosity in Physics?