Chapter X. The Physicians of Athens.

63. The Beginnings of Greek Medical Science. - As we move about the city we cannot but be impressed by the high average of fine physiques and handsome faces. Your typical Greek is fair in color and has very regular features. The youths do not mature rapidly, but thanks to the gymnasia and the regular lives, they develop not merely admirable, but healthy, bodies. The proportion of hale and hearty OLD men is great; and probably the number of invalids is considerably smaller than in later times and in more artificially reared communities.[*] Nevertheless, the Athenians are certainly mortal, and subject to bodily ills, and the physician is no unimportant member of society, although his exact status is much less clearly determined than it will be in subsequent ages.

[*]A slight but significant witness to the general healthiness of the Greeks is found in the very rare mention in their literature of such a common ill as TOOTHACHE.

Greek medicine and surgery, as it appears in Homer, is simply a certain amount of practical knowledge gained by rough experience, largely supplemented by primitive superstition. It was quite as important to know the proper prayers and charms wherewith to approach "Apollo the Healer," as to understand the kind of herb poultice which would keep wounds from festering. Homer speaks of Asclepius; however, in early days he was not a god, but simply a skilful leach. Then as we approach historic times the physician's art becomes more regular. Asclepius is elevated into a separate and important deity, although it is not till 420 B.C. that his worship is formally introduced into Athens. Long ere that time, however, medicine and surgery had won a real place among the practical sciences. The sick man stands at least a tolerable chance of rational treatment, and of not being murdered by wizards and fanatical exorcists.

64. Healing Shrines and their Methods. - There exist in Athens and in other Greek cities real sanataria[*]; these are temples devoted to the healing gods (usually Asclepius, but sometimes Apollo, Aphrodite, and Hera). Here the patient is expected to sleep over night in the temple, and the god visits him in a dream, and reveals a course of treatment which will lead to recovery. Probably there is a good deal of sham and imposture about the process. The canny priests know more than they care to tell about how the patient is worked into an excitable, imaginative state; and of the very human means employed to produce a satisfactory and informing dream.[+] Nevertheless it is a great deal to convince the patient that he is sure of recovery, and that nobody less than a god has dictated the remedies. The value of mental therapeutics is keenly appreciated. Attached to the temple are skilled physicians to "interpret" the dream, and opportunities for prolonged residence with treatment by baths, purgation, dieting, mineral waters, sea baths, all kinds of mild gymnastics, etc. Entering upon one of these temple treatments is, in short anything but surrendering oneself to unmitigated quackery. Probably a large proportion of the former patients have recovered; and they have testified their gratitude by hanging around the shrine little votive tablets,[$] usually pictures of the diseased parts now happily healed, or, for internal maladies, a written statement of the nature of the disease. This is naturally very encouraging to later patients: they gain confidence knowing that many cases similar to their own have been thus cured.

[*]The most famous was at Epidaurus, where the Asclepius cult seems to have been especially localized.

[+]The "healing sleep" employed at these temples is described, in a kind of blasphemous parody, in Aristophanes's "Plutus." (Significant passages are quoted in Davis's "Readings in Ancient History," vol. I, pp. 258-261.)

[$]Somewhat as in the various Catholic pilgrimage shrines (e.g. Lourdes) to-day.

These visits to the healing temples are, however, expensive: not everybody has entire faith in them; for many lesser ills also they are wholly unnecessary. Let us look, then, at the regular physicians.

65. An Athenian Physician's Office. - There are salaried public medical officers in Athens, and something like a public dispensary where free treatment is given citizens in simple cases; but the average man seems to prefer his own doctor.[*] We may enter the office of Menon, a "regular private practitioner," and look about us. The office itself is a mere open shop in the front of a house near the Agora; and, like a barber's shop is something of a general lounging place. In the rear one or two young disciples (doctors in embryo) and a couple of slaves are pounding up drugs in mortars. There are numbers of bags of dried herbs and little glass flasks hanging on the walls. Near the entrance is a statue of Asclepius the Healer, and also of the great human founder of the real medical science among the Greeks - Hippocrates.

[*]We know comparatively little of these public physicians; probably they were mainly concerned with the health of the army and naval force, the prevention of epidemics, etc.

Menon himself is just preparing to go out on his professional calls. He is a handsome man in the prime of his life, and takes great pains with his personal appearance. His himation is carefully draped. His finger rings have excellent cameos. His beard has been neatly trimmed, and he has just bathed and scented himself with delicate Assyrian nard. He will gladly tell you that he is in no wise a fop, but that it is absolutely necessary to produce a pleasant personal impression upon his fastidious, irritable patients. Menon himself claims to have been a personal pupil of the great Hippocrates,[*] and about every other reputable Greek physician will make the same claim. He has studied more or less in a temple of Asclepius, and perhaps has been a member of the medical staff thereto attached. He has also become a member of the Hippocratic brotherhood, a semi-secret organization, associated with the Asclepius cult, and cheerfully cherishing the dignity of the profession and the secret arts of the guild.

[*]Who was still alive, an extremely old man. He died in Thessaly in 357 B.C., at an alleged age of 104 years.

66. The Physician's Oath. - The oath which all this brotherhood has sworn is noble and notable. Here are some of the main provisions: -

"I swear by Apollo the Physician, and Asclepius and Hygeia; a [Lady Health] and Panaceia [Lady All-Cure] to honor as my parents the master who taught me this art, and to admit to my own instruction only his sons, my own sons, and those who have been duly inscribed as pupils, and who have taken the medical oath, and no others. I will prescribe such treatment as may be for the benefit of my patients, according to my best power and judgment, and preserve them from anything hurtful or mischievous. I will never, even if asked, administer poison, nor advise its use. I will never give a criminal draught to a woman. I will maintain the purity and integrity of my art. Wherever I go, I will abstain from all mischief or corruption, or any immodest action. If ever I hear any secret I will not divulge it. If I keep this oath, may the gods give me success in life and in my art. If I break this oath, may all the reverse fall upon me."[*]

[*]For the unabridged translation of this oath, see Smith's "Dictionary of Antiquities" (revised edition), vol. II, p. 154.

67. The Skill of Greek Physicians. - Menon's skill as a physician and surgeon is considerable. True, he has only a very insufficient conception of anatomy. His THEORETICAL knowledge is warped, but he is a shrewd judge of human nature and his PRACTICAL knowledge is not contemptible. In his private pharmacy his assistants have compounded a great quantity of drugs which he knows how to administer with much discernment. He has had considerable experience in dealing with wounds and sprains, such as are common in the wars or in the athletic games. He understands that Dame Nature is a great healer, who is to be assisted rather than coerced; and he dislikes resorting to violent remedies, such as bleedings and strong emetics. Ordinary fevers and the like he can attack with success. He has no modern anesthetics or opium, but has a very insufficient substitute in mandragora. He can treat simple diseases of the eye; and he knows how to put gold filling into teeth. His surgical instruments, however, are altogether too primitive. He is personally cleanly; but he has not the least idea of antiseptics; the result is that obscure internal diseases, calling for grave operations, are likely to baffle him. He will refuse to operate, or if he does operate the chances are against the patient.[*] In other words, his medical skill is far in advance of his surgery.

[*]Seemingly a really serious operation was usually turned over by the local physician to a traveling surgeon, who could promptly disappear from the neighborhood if things went badly.

Menon naturally busies himself among the best families of Athens, and commands a very good income. He counts it part of his equipment to be able to persuade his patients, by all the rules of logic and rhetoric, to submit to disagreeable treatment; and for that end has taken lessons in informal oratory from Isocrates or one of his associates. Some of Menon's competitors (feeling themselves less eloquent) have actually a paid rhetorician whom they can take to the bedside of a stubborn invalid, to induce him by irrefutable arguments to endure an amputation.[*]

[*]Plato tells how Gorgias, the famous rhetorician, was sometimes thus hired. A truly Greek artifice - this substitution of oratory for chloroform!

No such honor of course is paid to the intellects of the poorer fry, who swarm in at Menon's surgery. Those who cannot pay to have him bandage them himself, perforce put up with the secondary skill and wisdom of the "disciples." The drug-mixing slaves are expected to salve and physic the patients of their own class; but there seems to be a law against allowing them to attempt the treatment of free-born men.

68. Quacks and Charlatans. - Unluckily not everybody is wise enough to put up with the presumably honest efforts of Menon's underlings. There appears to be no law against anybody who wishes to pose as a physician, and to sell his inexperience and his quack nostrums. Vendors of every sort of cure-all abound, as well as creatures who work on the superstitions and pretend to cure by charms and hocus-pocus. In the market there is such a swarm of these charlatans of healing that they bring the whole medical profession into contempt. Certain people go so far as to distrust the efficacy of any part of the lore of Asclepius. Says one poet tartly: -

The surgeon Menedemos, as men say,
Touched as he passed a Zeus of marble white;
Neither the marble nor his Zeus-ship might
Avail the god - they buried him to-day.

And again even to dream of the quacks is dangerous: -

Diophantes, sleeping, saw
Hermas the physician:
Diophantes never woke
From that fatal vision.[*]

[*]Both of these quotations probably date from later than 360 B.C., but they are perfectly in keeping with the general opinion of Greek quackery.

All in all, despite Menon's good intentions and not despicable skill, it is fortunate the gods have made "Good Health" one of their commonest gifts to the Athenians. Constant exercise in the gymnasia, occasional service in the army, the absence of cramping and unhealthful office work, and a climate which puts out-of-door existence at a premium, secure for them a general good health that compensates for most of the lack of a scientific medicine.