Neither Hippocrates nor his descendants ever dissected the human body ; the religious respect that was had for the dead in all Greece, prevented it. We, therefore, find in their writings some generalities, merely, on the form, volume, and respective positions of the principal viscera. Osteology, only, is treated there with sufficient exactness, and this fact is explained by a tradition, which says that the Asclepiadae, of Cos, kept in their school a human skeleton, for the instruction of their pupils. They had been able moreover to
acquire some knowledge on the conformation of the internal parts, in examining the entrails of victims, in the case of the wounded, whose splanchnic cavities were opened, and in dissecting animals. Such are, according to the opinions of nearly all historiographers and critics, the sources whence the members of the Hippocratic family obtained their anatomical knowledge. Nevertheless, I must say, that the author of the History of Anatomy, whom I have already cited, denies that Hippocrates ever dissected animals, or even had in his possession a veritable skeleton. Be this as it may, the following are the books of the collection in which are found the most of the anatomical details : Regions in man ; Wounds of the Head ; The Mochlic ; The Heart ; The Glands ; The Nature of Bones ; A Fragment on the Dissection of the Body.
The prejudice which forbade the touch of the human corpse, did not begin to abate until toward the close of the philosophic period, at which time the family of Hippocrates appears to be extinct, the name of any his descendants no more appearing in the history of Medicine.
Physiology, as we conceive it in our day, that is, that branch of the science of man which is devoted to the description of the functions of each organic apparatus, can not make one step without being guided by the light of anatomy. It is, therefore, not astonishing that we encounter scarcely any traces of it in the Hippocratic writings. We read in them that the glands are spongy viscera, destined to secrete humidity from the surrounding parts, and that the brain, the largest of the glands, attracts the vapors of all the interior of the body. The muscles, which they called flesh, were for the purpose of covering the bones ; the nerves, the tendons, the ligaments, the membranes, are all represented as analogous organs, concurring in the same manner to the production of motion. The arteries and veins are generally confounded, or if they are distinguished, it is only on the supposition that the former contained air and the latter blood. Respiration was supposed to moderate the heat of the lungs, and especially of the heart.
But if the physiologists of those times neglected the special study of the organic functions, in lieu of it, they gave themselves up to transcendental speculations on the nature and seat of the principle of life. Some placed the source of life in moisture, others in fire, others in the union of two or four elements, etc. Each one endeavored to sustain his hypothesis by arguments more or less specious, and aspired to the glory of going back to first principles. Intermediate knowledge, or the study of details, was considered as of but little value. Such was the general direction given to scientific researches by the philosophers. Many books of the collection contain speculations of this kind, as we shall see when we come to expose their theories.
From History of Medicine by P.V. Renouard M.D.