4/1/10 - mariners and hippocrates

In today's excerpts - Greek mariners during the golden age of Athens, (mid-5th century B.C.) travelled the length and breadth of the Mediterranean in triremes, galleys with three banks of oars, one above the other. Often those rowers would return needing medical help, and were treated by the disciples of Hippocrates:

"Some unlucky Athenian seafarers, [returned home seeking] a doctor. Rowing and maritime service involved certain occupational hazards. Among the doctors who treated such conditions were disciples of a revolutionary medical practitioner named Hippocrates. He was born on the small island of Cos in the eastern Aegean, a member of the Athenian alliance, but his teachings had spread far and wide. Hippocrates created a school of medicine patterned after the schools of philosophy. His disciples and successors swore the sacred 'Hippocratic' oath, (I will apply dietic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice, ...), but they based their scientific work not on piety but on observation of symptoms, experimentation with different treatments, and careful recording of case histories.

"The journals kept by Hippocrates and his followers provide glimpses of the dangers that beset Greek mariners of their time. 'On Salamis, the man who fell on the anchor received a wound in the belly. He had great pain. He drank a drug but there was no evacuation below, nor did he vomit.' It was not merely blistered hands and sore rumps that afflicted the rowers of the navy. Despite the fleecy rowing pads that aided their legwork, Greek oarsmen suffered a particular occupational malady from the hard service on the wooden thwarts: fistula of the anus.

"If the rower put off treatment, the fistula might penetrate the wall of the rectum. Now the matter was serious. Once the physician had taken the measure of the problem, the fistula was treated over a period of days with linen plugs and suppositories made of powdered horn. Other medicines included root of hartwort pounded fine, water mixed with honey (a good antibacterial agent), burnt flower of copper, fuller's earth, and alum. The rectum of the miserable rower was anointed continually with myrrh until the fistula healed over. Without a doctor's care his prospects were bleak: 'Any patients that are left untreated die.'

"Hippocrates' disciples brought the same orderly, intellectual approach to medicine that was revolutionizing many other fields at that time, from history to urban planning. They studied the patterns of winds, rain, and stars as assiduously as any mariner, for it was a tenet of their belief that the weather and the seasons had a powerful influence on health and sickness.  In eastern Greek cities the arts and sciences had withered under Persian rule. Now the liberal outlook of the Athenians was bringing about a scientific renaissance. Ease of travel throughout the maritime empire helped the rapid spread of new ideas and techniques."

For those expecting an April Fool's Day contribution from our dear friend Paolo S. Frils, we must tell you that today's excerpt is entirely legitimate!


John R. Hale


Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy




Copyright 2009 by John R. Hale


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