In search of Hippocrates

February 7, 2000

Come to the Greek island of Kos, where the Western world's first medical school thrived, and time still moves to ancient rhythms.

In search of Hippocrates

Come to the Greek island of Kos, where the Western world's first medical school thrived, and time still moves to ancient rhythms.

Text and photos by Eric G. Anderson, MD
Family Physician / San Diego

The sunset at Cape Sounion, on the journey to Kos, is spectacular.

Greece has always been a mystical place for me. It's where arguably the greatest civilization in history began, where democracy first flowered, and where the greatest physician of all time was born, lived, and practiced his craft, on the island of Kos.

Kos, which lies so far east in the Dodecanese chain that its shores are only four miles from the mainland of Turkey, is the Greek island least visited by Americans. But it's such a summertime favorite of Scandinavian, German, and British tourists that a spring or fall visit is advisable if you want to savor the place for what it has to offer.

And what it offers, if you get beyond the new resorts that rise up around the waterfronts of the capital, also called Kos, is fishing villages where the rhythms and flavor are Greek.

We sat in a taverna in the little town of Kardamena, 18 miles southwest of the capital. Our lunch was the typical "peasant salad" of tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, and onions with huge chunks of feta cheese on top, and some honey and yogurt on the side. Even for spring, it was a hot, languid day and no one was in a hurry—especially the waiter. We mentioned that to a Greek companion, who responded with the remark heard all over Europe: "Americans hurry too much."

He pointed out the owner of the taverna, a burly man sitting with friends around a long table in a corner. They were all clutching their ouzo, telling stories, and having a great time.

"I was in this restaurant one night," said our guide, "when an American tourist signaled he wanted his bill. He couldn't get the owner's attention. Finally he went over and said he wanted to pay. The owner replied that he'd come to the man's table in half an hour—he was with friends. The American got angry and said he'd leave without paying if he couldn't have his bill immediately. The owner said, 'That's okay. Go.'

"The American flung some money on the table and stormed out. He didn't understand."

I thought of this the next day at the harbor, where an old fisherman had laid out sponges harvested from the sea. Usually Greeks enjoy haggling—and, of course, being originally Scottish, I like a bargain, too.

He had two qualities of sponges, with brown cardboard signs showing the prices of $1 and $2, oddly enough in US dollars. I picked up a big $2 sponge from the table and said, hopefully, "One dollar?" He slapped my hand—I guess playfully—and said, "You bad boy!"

I came back to the hotel to show my wife the $2 sponge I'd got for $2 and some native-fired china I'd bought at Clarisse's Keramik factory on the outskirts of town.

On the islands, life hasn't changed much since an unknown sculptor created this statue of Hippocrates.

The next day, I drove two-and-a-half miles out of Kos, past chickens and pigs and goats, past honey-colored buildings laden with bougainvillea and gardens spilling with olive trees and oleanders, to the most famous architectural ruins in medical history.

When Hippocrates was born on Kos in 460 BC, the prosperous island was home to 160,000 people. Today, the population is one-sixth that number. Thanks to tourism, however, local residents are regaining some of their affluence.

Astypalaia, the capital in the fifth century BC, lay on the west side of the 28-mile-long island, distant from the eastern sea routes—and the pirates who plied them. This gives some credibility to the theory that Hippocrates taught his students on the west coast of Kos, nowhere near the present capital. According to some historians, the father of medicine never entered the temple of healing, the Asklepieion.

But when the settlements in the western part of the island were destroyed by an earthquake and a subsequent Spartan invasion in 411 BC, the people moved the city to the present location of Kos, to be close to a friendly populace and the Asklepieion itself. Some writers, describing a fire there, relate that Hippocrates tried to save "manuscripts and tables of the temple" and was severely burned, nearly losing his life.

But was the Asklepieion, unearthed in 1902, the same one honored by Hippocrates?

Many archaeologists believe so. That's good enough for physicians who know, as they wander in the Asklepieion, that they're walking in the footsteps of Hippocrates himself. This ancient center of healing spreads across wooded groves on the lower slopes of Mount Oromedon. That the grove was sacred in earlier times adds to the belief that Hippocrates practiced here, even though his teachings and writings were the antithesis of the "incubation" ceremonies, miracle cures, and other religious rituals of ancient Greece's temple priests.

Roman conquerors partook of the mythology surrounding Hippocrates.
They built the temple of Apollo at Asklepios.

The area is laid out in three terraces. The view from the upper level carries the eye over tall cypress trees to the green fields and cobbled streets of Kos, to the harbor and the 14th-century battlements of the Knights of St. John and—beyond the turquoise sea—to the coastline of Turkey itself.

In contrast to many archaeological sites, this one is easy to understand. The lower terrace was the entrance and arena for special events. It contained health spas, bathhouses, and fountains spouting water from nearby springs.

The water of one fountain is rich in sulfur. Says a local guide, Christa Mee, "Whatever effect the water was intended to produce upon . . . invalids, it is perhaps no coincidence that . . . a sumptuous latrine was constructed in the vicinity."

The middle terrace, 30 steps up, contains the foundation of the altar of Asklepios; built between 350 and 330 BC, it's the earliest symbolic structure left on the hillside. On the right, to the west side of the altar, is the Temple of Asklepios, constructed in the third century BC to house gifts the sick brought their priest-physicians. To the east is another temple, constructed by the Romans and dedicated to Apollo.

Sixty more marble steps bring visitors to the foundation of the huge temple of the upper terrace, built in the second century BC with 104 Doric columns around its 340-foot perimeter.

The Knights of St. John chose to use parts of the Asklepieion for fortification against the Ottoman Turks. Little of value remains.

There are more than 300 centers in the ancient world named for Asklepios, but none as famous as this. You sit on the upper terrace, imagining what Hippocrates' students must have felt sitting at his feet, here and under a great plane tree in the center of town.

A functioning windmill on Kos blends ancient and modern forms.

A similar conviction is necessary at the other end of the ruined agora. But when you walk into the Greek Archaeological Museum on the island of Kos, you nearly step on one of its treasures, a mosaic floor transferred from a Roman villa in the ancient part of town. The mosaic shows Asklepios, the god of healing, arriving on the shores of Kos and being welcomed by an islander and by Hippocrates, the father of medicine. Created in the third century AD, about 600 years after the death of Hippocrates, it remains one of the few illustrations of medicine's founder.

Beyond the Roman courtyard is another significant image for an American doctor: a statue from the fourth century BC—identified by Italian architects when a 1933 earthquake exposed what had been an arena, the Odeon. The statue stands in an apse at the end of a hallway. Bathed in deep green light, it seems to stare into the distance. The sun streaming in through the overhead window highlights this link to medicine's heritage—the image of Hippocrates himself.

A recent best-seller in Greece talks about health and alternative medicine, popular subjects even for defenders of the present medical establishment. According to a spokesman in the Office of Public and Trade Relations of the Greek National Tourist Organization in New York, "the book is as current and significant today as it was more than 2400 years ago."

The book, rewritten in a contemporary voice, is called All About Medicine. Its author is a Greek physician named Hippocrates.

Eric Anderson. In search of Hippocrates. Medical Economics 2000;3:146.