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Hellenistic Medicine

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Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, ruled an empire that stretched from the Balkans to the Himalayas and from Egypt to the Caspian Sea during the mid-4th century BC. But his empire soon fell apart after his sudden and unexpected death in Babylon. His goal of further conquest was thus cut short, and his empire was left without a successor. What Alexander left behind was not a huge empire, but the spread and intermingling of ideas among the areas he conquered. Some important advancement in medicine and science were thus made, owing to the collaborative work of many Hellenistic intellectuals from Alexander’s former empire. The source of Greek knowledge about medicine came from Egypt, which was fairly well-developed by the Greece was entering its Golden Age. Greek figures such as Pythagoras traveled widely, and picked up discoveries from places and brought them back to Greece. Thales gained first-hand experience of medicine when he was training in Egypt. Similar to Greek medicine, Egyptian medicine also lied in religion and spirituality. The Egyptian god of medicine was Imhotep, whose role was analogous to that of Asclepius. People would pray to him and other gods for healing, and it was believed that gods played a role in matters of health and disease. Despite these religious origins and beginnings, Egyptian medicine was rather rational and scientific. Blood was thought to be an important nutritive and regulatory substance, and the heart was considered to be the center of the circulatory system. Along with the circulatory system, the influence of the respiratory system was also recognized. Being excellent recorders that Ancient Egyptians were, they recorded medical recipes that attributed to their god of healing. Other papyri records discussed the effects of various drugs and catalogued various diseases and their symptoms (“Greek Medicine: The History of Greek Medicine”).
Hippocrates was an early physician from the island of Kos. He codified, systematized, and put into effect generations of earlier medical theories both from Egypt and Greece. During the 5th century B.C.E., his name began to emerge as a leader in medical research. He is credited with modern theories of diet, beneficial drugs, and the keeping of the body in balance. Unlike his contemporary times, he did not believe divine notions of medicine, prayers, and sacrifices to the gods could help the body in any way. Central to his ideas on illness was the theory of humoral health. It put emphasis on the balance of four humors or bodily fluids – blood, phlegm, yellow bile (choler), and black bile (melancholy). The reason behind illness, according to Hippocrates, is caused by the imbalance of these four fluids. To resolve this problem, a humor should be reduced by bloodletting or purging (“Hippocrates and the Rise of Rational Medicine”). Medicine during Hippocrates’ time was focused on physiology, which dealt with how the living, human being related and responded to the environment and how each individual functioned to achieve survival and well-being. Furthermore, dissection was not popular because of religious bans in cutting open cadavers. Therefore, this phenomenon gave Greek medicine a holistic direction (“Greek Medicine: The History of Greek Medicine”).
Alexander the Great thus came into the picture as a result of his conquests. Greek medicine spread throughout the entire Mediterranean world and beyond. The building and development of Alexandria in Egypt was one of the most important intellectual movements that encouraged the flourishing of a wealth of knowledge. The library of Alexandria housed the highest ideas of its day, and was also the location where many scientists trained in the Aristotelian school of thought. Going back to Egypt’s tradition of mummifying its pharaohs and the practice of funerary, dissection therefore was nothing new, but was carried further during the Hellenistic age with the purpose of understanding the anatomy of humans. Herophilus of Chalcedon, one of the greatest contributors of Hellenistic medicine, as well as the father of anatomy, conducted his research in Alexandria. He considered himself a close adherent of Hippocrates, and adapted the humoral theory and believed in the power of drugs, dietetics, and exercise. He belonged to the dogmatic school of medicine, which emphasized the importance of dissection. He did extensive research on the brain, and studied the ventricles of the brain, which he thought was the center of the nervous system. He also had careful accounts of the eye, liver, salivary glands, pancreas, and genital organs (Shipley 348). In addition to these discoveries, he was also the first to measure the pulse using a water clock (“Herophilus – Greek physician”) and body temperature. Through Herophilus’ discoveries, he found out that arteries are vessels, contrary to Aristotle’s belief that arteries did not transport blood but pneuma. Four considerable physicians wrote works about him and his writings, and was greatly respected by Galen and Celsus, coming second only to Hippocrates (“Medicine History – Medical, School, Century, Diseases, System, and Disease”). The support from the members of the wealthy was also crucial during this time period. They supported these physicians by providing patronage to their research. In fact, Ptolemaic kings even provided criminals to be used as experiments for Herophilus (Shipley 348). The school in Alexandria called itself the Empirical School, since everything was carefully tested out and experimented with. For a short time period, the religious ban on dissecting corpses was lifted, which allowed Herophilus to perform the first postportem examination of a corpse in public around 300 B.C.E. (“Hellenistic-Roman Medicine. Arab Medicine. Medieval Times”). Empiricists thought it was useless to inquire into the cause of things, but dived right in by focusing in the observation of the actual manifestation of diseases. Their whole practice was based upon experience, which was drawn upon through observation, history or any preexisting and recorded observation, and judgment by analogy. Empiricists were especially influenced by the works of Hippocrates, whose work they commented regularly. Their practicality led them to be successful in the areas of surgery and the use of drugs. The progress and achievement made at the Alexandrian schools in medicine was a great and permanent achievement. The knowledge of function did not really progress as much as the knowledge of structure. The ideas of Hippocrates was greatly expanded and improved upon. These new discoveries in human anatomy affected later intellectual periods. Another breakthrough during the Hellenistic age was in the field of science. Alexandria was also the research center for astronomy. Its museum housed a small observatory where astronomers and researchers did observations on the stars and planets. A famous astronomer, Aristarchus of Samos, led two significant scientific discoveries. He was a student of Strato of Lampsacus, who was the head of Aristotle’s Lyceum. Strato became head of the Lyceum in Alexandria in 287 BC, and started studying with Aristarchus then. He estimated the distances and sizes of the sun and moon in his only surviving work, On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon. It provides the details of his geometric argument, which was based on observation. He determined that the Sun was about twenty times further away as the distance from the earth to the moon and twenty times as big as the moon. Although these numbers were much smaller than today’s discoveries, the differences were from a lack of accurate measuring instruments rather and not in faulty mathematical calculations. Although he greatly underestimated the sun’s true size and distance from the earth, he got credit for making that discovery of his time. Another discovery was his proposal of the first heliocentric model. This idea was never heard or recorded before mainly because it was not accepted by the Greeks and therefore never gained popularity or attention. His theory was known only because of a summary statement in Archimedes’ The Sand-Reckoner. Here, Archimedes described Aristarchus’ theory about the heliocentric model, “the universe is many times greater than the ‘universe’ just mentioned. His [Aristarchus] hypotheses are that the fixed starts and the sun remain unmoved, that the earth revolves about the sun on the circumference of a circle, the sun lying in the middle of the orbit, and that the sphere of fixed starts, situated about the same center as the sun, is so great that the circle in which he supposes the earth to revolve bears such a proportion to the distance of the fixed starts as the center of the sphere bears to its surface.” Archimedes criticized those views for providing meaningless mathematical proportions. Even in the 2nd century A.D., people supported the geocentric model of the universe for the next fourteen centuries (“Aristarchus of Samos”).
Eratosthenes, the director of the library of Alexandria, was another figure who made discoveries in mathematics and astronomy. He created a sieve that determines prime numbers to any given limit. It is important even to this day in number research theory. Prime numbers are natural numbers larger than one and can be divided only by itself and by one without remainder. Eratosthenes figured out that if one were to write down all the natural numbers from two to infinity, and “sieve out” every second number after two, then move to the next available number three and continue to “sieve out” every multiple of three, one would be left with a list of prime numbers. His contribution to astronomy was the measurement of the circumference of the Earth. He found the circumference of the Earth to be approximately 250,000 stadia. The sun shone directly down a well at high noon on the day of the summer solstice in Syene. It cast a shadow in Alexandria, south of where the well was. To calculate the Earth’s circumference, he measured the angle of the shadow to the Earth. He believed that the sun’s rays were parallel. He was also believed to have made a star catalog with approximately six hundred seventy five starts and created a calendar that included leap years. He was nicknamed Beta, and his works are still discussed to this day (“Eratosthenes”). Archimedes of Syracuse studied in Alexandria, and made few groundbreaking discoveries in physics and math. He wrote many extant treatises about geometry concerning spheres, cylinders, circles, conoids, spheroids, and planes. He discovered many formulas to calculate the volumes, area, and circumference of various geometric and conical shapes. He made some mechanical advancement from his study of hydrostatics, which Archimedes could be credited as its founder. The main concern of hydrostatics is to determine the positions that different types of solids will assume when it floats in a fluid depending on their form and variation in their specific gravities. He is famous for developing the Archimedes’ principle, which states that a solid denser than a fluid will, when immersed in that fluid, be lighter by the weight of the fluid it displaces. Being a gifted mathematician, he invented the Archimedes screw, which was a device that raised water from the ground, and also the compound pulley used to lift heavy objects. Archimedes’ idea influenced many Hellenistic scientists, who later on built a force pump, pneumatic machines, and even a steam engine. His mathematical discoveries later influenced many Islamic mathematicians, who improved on his achievements. His treatise Methods greatly influenced physicists such as Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and mathematicians such as Rene Descartes and Pierre de Fermat (“Archimedes”). Euclid was a prominent mathematician who was best known for his theories on geometry, the Elements. He taught at Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter. He compiled his book from many works of his predecessors, and did not include only geometry. Books I through IV dealt with plane geometry. Book V shifts from plane geometry to explain the theory of ratios and proportions. It provided a solution to the problem of irrational numbers, which influenced analytic theory developed in the late 19th century. A total of thirteen books were contained in Elements. The lack of evenness of some of these books and the varied mathematical levels provide the explanation that Euclid was an editor of works written by other mathematicians. Elements had a continuous and major influence in later time periods. It was where the primary source of geometric reasoning, theorems, and methods, and is sometimes considered the most published, studied, and translated book produced in the Western world other than the Bible. Euclid left a legacy and standard for deductive reasoning and geometric instruction that continued without much change for more than two thousand years (“Euclid”). The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered more than a hundred years ago by sponge divers near the island of Antikythera. Decades and decades of research placed this mechanism as an astronomical phenomenon that operated in a way similar to a computer. This machine dates to the 2nd century BCE, and can be said to be the most sophisticated mechanism of its times. Derek Price, a science historian at Yale, concluded that the device was an astronomical computer that is able to predict the positions of the sun and moon in the zodiac at any given date. He believed that this machine displayed a form of ancient Greek complex mechanical technology. Complemented by Arab technology, it laid the foundation for clock-making techniques. However, a new analysis suggests by Michael Wright, the curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum in London, suggests that this device was designed to model a particular form of epicyclic motion. Although the true nature of its use is not certain, this device was surely paved the way for later mechanical machines to develop (“The Antikythera Mechanism: The Clockwork Computer”). The medicine and science of the Hellenistic Age did not necessary have a direct impact in its contemporary society, but remained latent until scientists, mathematicians, doctors, and other intellectuals later on built upon their discoveries, works, and popularized their ideas. However, the building of the great library of Alexandria proved to be one of the most distinguishing traits of the Hellenistic Age that encouraged much higher learning and research for the pursuit of knowledge in all every field of human lives. The disintegration of Alexander’s vast empire allowed the spread of ideas throughout the Mediterranean, and encouraged all members of the empire to collaborate in a specific area of research they sought answers to. Without this crucial period, mathematicians, physicians, physicists, etc., would not have been able to achieve great strides as they did through collaboration and picking up from the old preexisting knowledge.

Works Cited

"The Antikythera Mechanism: The Clockwork Computer." The Economist 19 Sept. 2002: n. pag. The Economist. Web. 19 Dec. 2012. <http://www.economist. com/node/1337165/print>.

"Archimedes". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2012 <http://www.britannica. com/EBchecked/topic/32808/Archimedes/21481/His-influence>.

Aristarchus of Samos. MacTutor History of Mathematics, Apr. 1999. Web. 19 Dec. 2012. <http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Aristarchus.html>.

Eratosthenes. Wichita State University Department of Mathematics and Statistics, n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2012. <http://www.math.twsu.edu/history/men/eratosthenes.html>.

"Euclid". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2012 <http://www.britannica.com/ EBchecked/topic/194880/Euclid/2175/Renditions-of-the-Elements>.

Greek Medicine: The History of Greek Medicine. David K. Osborn, 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://www.greekmedicine.net/history/The_History_of_Greek_ Medicine.html>.

Hellenistic-Roman Medicine. Arab Medicine. Medieval Times. Università degli Studi di Cagliari, 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://pacs.unica.it/biblio/lesson2.htm>.

"Herophilus." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online School Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2012. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://school. eb.com/eb/article-9040209>.

Hippocrates and the Rise of Rational Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 16 Sept. 2002. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/greek/greek_rationality.html>.

Medicine History - Medical, School, Century, Diseases, System, and Disease. Net Industries, n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://www.libraryindex.com/encyclopedia /pages/cpxkuj0ns9/medicine-history-medical-school.html>.

Shipley, Graham. The Greek World After Alexander. N.p.: Routledge, 2000. Print.…...

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