Humour and health - no laughing matter!

The Four HumoursThere is an excellent exhibition on ‘Medicine and the Olympic Games of Antiquity' until 20th July, at the Library of the Royal Society of Medicine in London, which explores the link between ancient attitudes towards health and exercise.


The most famous doctors of antiquity must be Hippocrates, who leant his name to the Hippocratic Oath, and Galen of Pergamum (120-220 CE). They based their medical knowledge on reason and observation and felt that illnesses arose from an imbalance in the four humours of the body.

This had nothing to do with how funny you are, but referred to the different kinds of fluids bodies were meant to contain: blood; yellow bile as seen in vomit and diarrhoea; phlegm, like the stuff that comes from your nose when you have a cold; and black bile, which might have meant clotted blood. These fluids were associated with different qualities and times of the year, for example, blood was hot and wet, and associated with spring. An excess of blood would give rise to fever.

Treatment would be to try to return the humours to their balanced state. So, if you had too much blood, the doctor would recommend bloodletting by cuts to a vein. Doctors could also prescribe herbal medicines that counteracted the properties of the humour that was in excess. So, if you had too much hot and wet blood, they would encourage the eating of cool foods like cucumber.

Perhaps because of these practices, doctors were not universally liked. Pliny says of Archagathus, the first Greek doctor in Rome, that:

‘At first, he was wonderfully popular, but then his cruel cutting and cautery won him the nickname “The Executioner” and people began to detest the medical arts and all doctors.’

Certainly, surgery was a last resort. Celsus, a Roman who wrote about medicine, said:

‘A surgeon should be fairly young, with strong and steady hands, ambidextrous, with good eyesight, eager to cure his patients, but detached enough not to want to hurry or to cut less than is necessary. He has to perform his tasks as if the patient’s screams had no effect on him.’

Thank goodness for the 21st century, and anaesthesia!