Humoral Pathology

The origins of humoral pathology click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced go back to the ideas of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (ca. 460-377 B.C.).  It was the basis of both ancient Greek and Roman medicine.  During the Dark Ages (ca.  500-1000 A.D.), this medical system was largely lost in Europe but was preserved in the Arab world.  The Moslem Moors of North Africa eventually reintroduced it to Spain beginning in the 8th century A.D.  It was taken to the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese from the 16th century on.  Today it remains a major folk tradition of medicine among Latin Americans.  In Europe and North America, humoral pathology explanations of illness and methods of curing continued to be part of the mainstream medical system well into the 19th century.  It remains popular among some alternative medicine advocates.

Humoral pathology is based on the idea that our bodies have four important fluids or humors--blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.  Because of this belief, humoral pathology is also called the "Hippocratic doctrine of four humors."  Each humor is thought to have its own "complexion."  Blood is hot and wet.  Phlegm is cold and wet.  Black bile is cold and dry.  Yellow bile is hot and dry.  These complexions have nothing to do with actual temperature and humidity.  For instance, coldness is thought to come from water, but boiling water is cold and ice is hot.  In addition to bodily fluids, four internal organs are considered highly important in humoral pathology.  The liver, brain, lungs, spleen, and gall bladder each have the same complexion as their presumably associated humor (shown in the table below).  Different kinds of illnesses, medicines, foods, and most natural objects also have specific complexions.

Bodily Substance   Normal "Complexion"

Internal organ

   Hot   Cold   Wet   Dry  

  blood   liver X -- X --
  phlegm brain and lungs -- X X --
  black  bile spleen -- X -- X
  yellow bile gall bladder X -- -- X

Curing an illness involves discovering the complexion imbalance and rectifying it.  A hot injury or illness must be treated with a cold remedy and vice versa.  For instance, a sprained ankle is a cold injury and must be treated with something hot, such as a piece of raw weasel meat tied over it.  Most people are thought to have and excess of heat and moisture.  This potentially dangerous imbalance can be lessened by blood letting either with leaches or by suctioning intentionally made cuts.  Specific foods and herbs also are used to restore balance.  For example, poisonous mushrooms are cold and must be treated by eating a hot substance, such as toasted garlic.

The humoral pathology system is further complicated by the fact that the complexion of something can change radically throughout the day.  In some areas of Central America, for instance, there is a saying: "An orange in the morning is medicine, in the middle of the day it makes you sick, in the evening it kills you."  The explanation of this paradoxical statement is that oranges are thought to be "cold" and the morning is a cold time.  As a consequence, eating them at that time does not cause a shock to the system.  At midday, the body is normally hot and in the evening it is the hottest.  Therefore, eating cold foods, such as oranges, at night must be avoided to prevent a potentially fatal shock.

A strong indication that the humoral pathology medical system is still alive and considered useful to many people in Latin America is the fact that newly introduced foods, medicines, and other things have complexions identified with them.  For example, motion pictures are generally considered to be cold and alka-Seltzer is slightly cold.  No doubt the use of cell phones and the Internet  are being assigned complexions as well.


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This page was last updated on Wednesday, December 26, 2007.
Copyright 2003-2007 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.