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I swear by Apollo Physician... Greek Medicine from the Gods to Galen

The Loss and Recovery of Greek Medicine in the West


After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, most works of the Greek physicians were lost to Western Europe.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, however, Western Europeans began to rediscover Greek scientific and medical texts. This was due in part to the discovery of Arab repositories of learning in Spain and elsewhere during the Crusades as well as the immigration to Italy of Byzantine scholars at the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

At first Greek theories, prescriptions, and procedures were accepted as medical dogma bout human anatomy, physiology, and treatment. Later, however, the Greeks’ entreaties to their readers to observe the human body and the world around them won out, and scholars began to perform their own research, leading to much of the medicine practiced in the West today


Arabic manuscript on Hippocrates; book open with Arabic script on orange paper.  Ibn al-Nafis, ‘Ali ibn Abi al Hazm. Sharh tab¯i'at al-ins¯an [li-Buqr¯at]. Commentary on Hippocrates' treatise “On the nature of man.” (Place of creation unknown, 1269 C.E.).  NLM Call number MS A 69. Ibn al-Nafis, ‘Ali ibn Abi al Hazm. Sharh tab¯i'at al-ins¯an [li-Buqr¯at]. Commentary on Hippocrates' treatise "On the nature of man". [S.l., 1269].

It was through manuscripts such as this thirteenth- century Arabic work on Hippocrates that many Western Europeans first began to learn about Greek medicine again.


Early Printing of Greek Medical Texts

Large title page printer’s device of Aldus Manutius showing a dolphin wrapped around a large anchor, printed in Venice, 1526.  NLM Call number: WZ 240 H667 1526. Title page of the first edition of the complete works of Hippocrates in Greek with large printer’s device showing a dolphin wrapped around a large anchor, printed by Aldus Manutius, Venice, 1526.  NLM Call number: WZ 240 H667 1526.

A great deal of Europe’s knowledge of Greek medicine and culture entered Europe through Italy in the fifteenth century. Not long after the invention of printing in the 1450s, Aldo Manuzio (1452-1516), also known as Aldus Manutius, began editing and printing Greek authors in their original language by finding the best manuscript texts available and creating new, highly legible Greek fonts.

His early editions of Hippocrates, Aristotle, Dioscorides, and other Greek authors marked the first time that many of them had been printed and helped establish their places in the European cultural canon.


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