What is said here in the context of the history of public health also refers to a great extent
to the history of medicine in particular. As far as George Rosen is concerned, while he was one
of the leading historians of medicine in the United States, he studied the history of medicine in
the first half of the last century at Berlin University in Germany and married the daughter of a
German physician (2). Political developments in Germany forced him to return to America.
Rosen took a special interest in the history of public health within the overall framework of the
history of medicine, and the cover of his book (displayed below) relates very well to one of the
major public health fields of interest, namely a clean environment as a precaution against one of
the serious plagues of mankind throughout centuries - cholera.
Is Hippocrates the ‘father of medicine’ also the ‘father of public health’?
The history of public health requires a consideration of distinctive aspects of health and
disease when compared with curative medicine. The question therefore arises as to whether
Hippocrates, who is proudly claimed as the ‘father of
medicine’ by the curative sector, might also be of special
importance for public health in that he showed that
public health, as it is known today, has its roots in
ancient times and goes back to his teaching and his
It might be even argued that the teaching of
Hippocrates is still highly relevant for public health but
less so for curative medicine. For instance, the
Hippocratic Oath, the fundamental basis of ethics in
medical practice, might not have been formulated by
him, but may well have been written after his death (3).
At the time Hippocrates was alive, there was a conflict
between two different schools of thought about medical
practice: the Knidians based their management of
patients on the diagnosis of diseases, while the Koans, to
which Hippocrates belonged, had a more general
approach to diagnosis and focused on passive treatments.
Modern medicine is entirely based on the principle that diagnosis of a disease comes first and
appropriate treatment can only be based on a diagnosis. Of course, at the time of ancient Greece
it was almost impossible to come to a correct diagnosis, and that is why Hippocrates might have
leaned towards the Koans. Clinical practice nowadays hardly resembles what Hippocrates taught,
but this is not the case when it comes to public health.
The achievements of Hippocrates were valid for both curative medicine and public health
due to his teaching that diseases are not caused by superstitions or the interference of gods, but
have natural causes (3). Whether curative medicine, as far as the laymen is concerned, is entirely
free of superstitions might be questioned, but it is difficult to blame public health for having to
deal with superstition when it comes to manage and solve public health problems. He also
stressed the necessity of observation and documentation. His aim was to observe the patient and