Did you know that more than half of all people will experience hemorrhoids at least once in their lives? Although hemorrhoids are a problem no one looks forward to, if you ever find yourself with this nuisance, you should be VERY glad you don’t live in ancient Greece with the famous Hippocrates (aka the “father of modern medicine”) as your doctor deal with condition .
The famous doctor traveled extensively and may even have written down many of his thoughts and practices (although there are probably several authors of the works, commonly referred to as the ‘Hippocratic Collection’, as many Greeks studied under him and wrote on the basis of his teachings” ). What he is by far best known for is the still-used “Hippocratic Oath,” still sworn by modern-day physicians around the world. Ironically, the oath says “do no harm” — which is why it might come as a surprise to find out if you went to a Hippocratic doctor in ancient Greece, they would treat your hemorrhoids by literally bringing heated iron surgical instruments to your butt !
Greek doctor and patient, plaster cast in WHMM (Wellcome Collection/ CC BY 4.0 )
Hippocrates’ method of treating hemorrhoids
The specific words of the 400 B.C. A treatise on Hemorrhoids goes into great detail on how best to perform this procedure. It states that “seven or eight” iron surgical instruments should be “prepared” with a coin-sized piece at the end – meaning they should be made red hot. Then the patient should be held down with fixed arms while the hemorrhoids are literally “burned until the heap has dried up, lest any part be left behind.” Interestingly, the work specifically encouraged the patient not to be gagged and encouraged to scream, since screaming “pushes the anus out” and makes it easier to reach and burn off more hemorrhoids!
Surgical Instruments, 5th Century B.C. BC, Greece. Reconstruction based on descriptions within the Hippocratic Corpus. Thessaloniki Technology Museum. (Gts-tg/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )
When the procedure was complete, there were at least processes in place to treat the (possibly quite serious now) wounds on the person’s buttocks. After the operation, a classic sedative paste made from the medicinal staples (?) lentils and chickpeas was applied, and a bandage was tied around the person’s waist to keep them in place for several days. After the lentil and chickpea dressing was removed, honey was applied to a new dressing and inserted into the subject’s anus.
Now, how the person has relieved themselves that week, or how they could possibly do it with any semblance of hygiene… it’s best not to think about it. Especially considering that the ancient Greeks tended to use real potsherds instead of toilet paper after they became “#2”. I can think of few worse things than having to literally scrape feces off recent burns… but I guess those ancient Greeks were a different race. Unfortunately, this habit of using potsherds as tp is one of the main reasons why hemorrhoids were so common among the ancient Greeks.
Ancient Greek pottery from a Cycladic workshop, find from the cemetery north of Paroikia, painted sherd, 700 – 600 BC. Archaeological Museum of Paros. zde/ CC BY-SA 4.0
Other Ancient Hemorrhoid Remedies
This “burn them straight to hell!” technique seems to have been inherent to the Greeks, although both the Hippocratic authors and other ancient societies wrote about other possible solutions (essentially ALL preferable). For example, the ancient Egyptians had several recipes for medicinal paste that could be applied to the affected areas.
Interestingly, another strategy used by the Romans, Indians and Arabs involved “ligation”. Ligation, or literally cutting off the flow of blood to an area, has been used by each of these cultures and also appears in some of the Hippocratic writings. The Greeks wrote of using wool or thread to tie off the hemorrhoid tightly and cut off the flow of blood to it so that over time it would actually shrink and fall off either on its own or through “excision” – cutting it off. This technique is actually a proven technique and is one of several methods that are still used, although doctors now use a rubber band instead of thread to tie off the hemorrhoids.
11th century English miniature. On the right is an operation to remove hemorrhoids. On the left, a patient with gout is treated with cutting and burning of the feet. ( public domain )
Hemorrhoid burns aside, Hippocrates made some positive contributions to health care today
Of all the possible solutions, the Hippocratic red-hot iron burning is absolutely the worst. However, Hippocrates gave the world a whole new way of looking at health and even terms like symptom, diagnosis, therapy, trauma and sepsis. He is credited with being the first to accurately diagnose epilepsy and find that it was caused by a problem in the brain, proving that the brain actually controlled the body.
He also named a variety of diseases that we still refer to today by the same terms, such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, coma, and paralysis. He even figured out how to diagnose and treat a lung infection known as empyema, a potentially fatal condition that would now require a CT scan and X-ray to diagnose.
Given Hippocrates’ remarkable achievements in several medical disciplines before the invention of almost all modern diagnostic tools, perhaps we can give him a break for making the wrong decision about a particular condition. Also, considering that it’s always best to look on the brighter side of things, and considering that almost everyone will deal with hemorrhoids at some point in their life… when it happens, you can at least be extra lucky, that you have it with you with modern medicine page!
Picture above: Depiction of a hemorrhoid operation from the 13th century. Source: The British Library / public domain
By Brendan Beatty