A sense of humour

The medicine we know today owes its origins to practice over 2500 years ago

The roots of modern Western medicine lie in Ancient Greece, around the sixth century BCE. Before then, disease and healing were seen in a supernatural context: healing and religion went hand-in-hand. Illness was often seen as divine punishment.



By the time of Hippocrates, around 400 BCE, Greek medicine had come to focus on the body and on natural explanations for sickness and health. The Greeks believed that the body was made up of four humours, or fluids – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile – and that the balance of these humours was central to health. Ill-health was thought to stem from an imbalance of the humours, so treatments aimed to restore balance. This could mean the use of pepper to induce sneezing fits, bleeding people, or subjecting people to enemas or potions to trigger violent vomiting. Read more about Hippocrates in ‘Times Past’ in the Big Picture: Thinking issue.

Later, Ancient Rome embraced Greek medical thinking. Their best physicians were nearly all Greek, including Galen, the most celebrated Roman medical man. Making the most of nature’s bounty was core to Roman medicine: dock for paralysis of the legs (possibly scurvy), St John’s wort to expel bladder stones, fenugreek as an enema and to treat pneumonia, and figs for cough remedies.

The balance of the humours was an enormously influential idea. Only in the past century or so has its popularity waned. Even now, echoes appear in popular thinking – detoxification, phlegmatic personalities and so on.

Other parts of the world have medical traditions that differ significantly from the West. A crucial distinction is the way they answer the question ‘does it work?’: Western medicine argues for evidence from scientific studies; other traditions rely more on the ‘test of time’.

Western medicine sees disease as a disruption to our body’s physiology, which treatment aims to correct. But other medical traditions (such as traditional Chinese medicine and the Ayurvedic tradition of India), like the humours, share the idea of balancing life forces.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Drug Development’ in January 2008 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Physiology, Medicine, History
Drug Development
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development