Thoughts That Hurt to Think #049 – The father of modern medicine was a quack!

Lately a lot of doctors have been calling out chiropractors for not being real doctors, specifically targeting the founder of chiropractic medicine as a way to make fun of these popular practitioners. They like to point out some of his methods, like magnetic healing, as being archaic and useless. Yet we don’t hear them talk about Hippocrates, and what the ‘father of modern medicine’ was into, back in his day. Why aren’t they pointing out what a quack he was, and how much stuff he got wrong?

Are they afraid we’ll find out their secret, based in those very ancient practices? Is it possible they all know that modern medicine only works most of the time because…

Whoa, hang on. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First, let’s dispel the notion that I might think chiropractors are a bunch of holy healers. I don’t. Most chiropractors are like most examples in any field, with their attention divided between a bunch of stuff that serves no one and trying to make the most amount of money for the least amount of work. There are some chiropractors that are awesome people who know the limits of their field, and some that are downright charlatans; but most fall somewhere along the scale, like most people do.

Like most doctors do.

Last week we talked about how modern doctors don’t take the Hippocratic Oath. We covered the fact that the oath is made to Apollo, that it prevents women from learning medicine, and that it takes a strong stance against things like abortion and euthanasia. But this isn’t all we have to consider when we look at the life of the father of modern medicine; we need to see what kind of contribution he made, as well as what kind of weird stuff he was into.

I mean, if we’re going to pick on Doctor Palmer, and even say that the entire field he created is bogus, shouldn’t we focus the same critical eye on the fellow who started many of our modern medical traditions?

Hippocrates was a big fan of astrology, for starters. In fact, he is quoted as saying the following: “A physician without a knowledge of astrology has no right to call himself a physician.” Another translation says much the same thing, but is a little more judgy: “He who does not understand astrology is not a doctor but a fool.”

He probably said something more like the first example, if descriptions of his demeanor and attitude are at all accurate. Hippocrates was supposedly a humble guy, at least when it came to dealing with other learned men of his time. Don’t forget that he didn’t think women should be doctors, as is evidenced by both versions of this quote. When it came to talking about physicians or potential physicians, Hippocrates always used a male pronoun.

But we already knew he was sexist.

Since doctors these days don’t study astrology as part of their course curriculum, we know Hippocrates would not consider them doctors at all. At best, he would not think they were qualified to practice medicine; at worst, he would view them as fools. Ironically, most doctors would consider any physician who used astrology in their practice nowadays to be a fool as well. I mean, they’re well known for bashing chiropractors; can you imagine how they feel about astrologers?

I’m not saying astrology is bogus, or that magnetic healing is either. Both are fields that should be studied with an open mind, utilized when they can be useful, and ignored when they don’t apply.

Like medicine.

Do you know what the thrust of Hippocrates’ beliefs and practices were? He was a big fan of preventive medicine, which is to say he put a lot of stock in eating right and exercising. When someone did get sick, he was always hesitant to introduce any kind of treatment other than bed rest and patience. He probably knew what most doctors know today: somewhere between seventy and ninety percent of all the things people go to doctors for will go away on their own, given time. Unfortunately, today’s physician has massive student loan debt and costly malpractice insurance; it’s much more common for them to prescribe something a patient doesn’t need, and schedule an equally unnecessary follow-up.

They have to figure out some way to get paid, after all.

Diet and exercise may have been a big part of Hippocrates’ focus, and you’d think maybe this would be one of the few things doctors today would still study extensively. They don’t, though. For every hour a modern doctor spends learning about procedures and medications that will be outdated in a few years, it’s rare for them to spend a minute learning how diet and nutrition can stave off the need for such drastic measures. Instead they have gotten a reputation for doling out medication like they get paid by the prescription. Which most of them do, in either a direct or roundabout sort of way.

Apparently they thought diet and nutrition were the same kind of quackery that humorism was. What, you don’t know what humorism is? Don’t feel bad; neither did my spellcheck. Actually, neither does hardly anyone nowadays. That’s because it was abandoned quite some time ago. It was a branch of medicine that attempted to achieve health by balancing the ‘humors’, or different fluids in the body. Although Hippocrates put quite a bit of stock in this field of study, he still felt the humors should be given a chance to balance out on their own before administering any kind of medicine.

To be fair, Hippocrates did a lot to dispel the notion that disease was a result of demonic possession. It’s nice to think that would’ve become pretty clear at some point without him making a big deal out of it, but who knows? Maybe clearing that gigantic hurdle made it possible for medicine to begin making real strides, even if most of them happened long after the father of modern medicine had left the scene.

Hippocrates never dissected a human corpse, because it wasn’t okay with the culture and religious beliefs of the time. Quite a radical, eh? Actually, it only took a couple autopsies to dispel the entire field of humorism. But that was some time after the ‘father of modern medicine’ died, having spent his life advancing and practicing what an hour with a corpse and a scalpel would have been happy to teach him.

One major part of Hippocrates’ practice survived him, and may be what continues to make physicians as effective as they are today. He believed doctors should conduct themselves in a certain fashion, always maintaining a calm demeanor while paying close attention to their physical appearance. He felt that if a patient had confidence in the doctor, the chances of their recovery would increase significantly. Like modern doctors, he dressed a very particular way to show he was a professional physician. He was also apparently obsessed with keeping his fingernails cut to a precise length, which may or may not have anything to do with anything. I guess it shows us he was predominantly preoccupied with the way people perceived him, which is a trait most modern doctors seem to share.

Just like shamans and healers in indigenous tribes, doctors like to wear clothes that make it easy to immediately identify them as physicians. They may wear a white jacket and stethoscope, even if they never have blood splatter on them or check anyone’s heartbeat. These clothes serve the same purpose as the bones and beads we expect a shaman to wear, signaling to the patient that this person knows what they’re doing. An air of superiority and mysticism completes the illusion, and that illusion creates what appears to be real magic.

Good luck finding a doctor that will discuss your case in layman’s terms, without using a bunch of words they know you won’t know first. They may as well be telling you about the spirit world, which they can see but you can’t, and wearing chicken bones around their necks instead of a stethoscope they never use. It’s very much about appearance and perception, which was quite possibly the most important contribution Hippocrates made to modern medicine.

It turns out he was actually right about this, as disturbing as it may sound. Patients who hold their doctor in awe recover faster than the ones who don’t respect their physician, even if the same treatment is applied. Unless the doctor tells them they have no chance of recovery; then they generally keel over as a result of the fatal prognosis. The doctor may tell them the charts got mixed up, and they’re actually totally healthy; but at that point they may lose respect for the doctor. It will be a long uphill battle to convince them the disease they are feeling the symptoms of is imaginary, since they are feeling them. When the problem starts to actually show itself in a real way, many doctors may be surprised; they certainly won’t consider that they may have made their patient sick, with the same dirty trick they use to make others well.

Hippocrates would totally get it, though. After all, he’s the one who thought doctors should have this power; and stressed that they act and dress a certain way to be effective in their field. He knew that confidence in your physician was perhaps the most important part of staying well or getting sick, which is why he made such a big deal out of it.

Is it possible that most people get well simply because they believe in their doctor’s ability to cure them? No, not really. Remember how many problems would go away on their own, if patients only had more patience? Doctors don’t have any problem taking credit for all the things that get better under their care, even if it would have gotten better without any medical intervention. On the other hand, they generally refuse to take the blame when a patient gets sick as a result of something they said or did. They like to pretend they’re scientists, dealing with a world where things like that are impossible or at least highly unlikely.

Somehow Hippocrates knew better, even though he didn’t have the studies to prove it yet. It’s funny that doctors today have those studies, and ignore them as completely as they do the importance of diet and exercise. We’ll have a look at what they say, next week, when we talk about the most effective form of treatment for most ailments. Hippocrates knew how important it was, and those studies have proved he was right about at least this one thing. If even only one patient ever was cured of a symptom or a disease with a pill that had no actual medicine in it, you would think doctors would be scrambling to figure out how to get patients’ bodies to heal themselves.

Yet it’s been way more than one, and modern doctors are loath to admit that maybe the real pills only work for the same reasons the fake ones do. This should maybe be the main focus of modern medicine, which would bring us full circle back to many of the beliefs held by the father of modern medicine. We’ll talk about it more next week, in a post called…

‘The placebo effect is real!’

I hope you come back, next week, and check it out.

Also, before I let you go…

Please don’t think I am completely unimpressed with doctors, or the great strides medicine has taken in the years since the most important guy in the field refused to conduct an autopsy. I think medicine has its place, and that certain cases definitely require a physician’s care. Just like chiropractors, doctors can actually help a few of the people who come to them complaining of some problem. But most of them would get better on their own, and the rest of them may be able to get better with the startling combination of a sugar pill and the right level of confidence in their doctor. Which we’ll be talking about next week.

There, I’m done.

Thanks for reading!

All the best,

J.K. Norry
The Secret Society of Deeper Meaning
Twitter: @JayNorry

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