53/ Good humour

About this time last year, so I am told, the skin on my face had a remarkably yellow-ish hue. I am pleased to report that this has since disappeared and my accustomed skin colour has been restored. Several of the medical staff who have treated me over the months have noted this fact with approval.

Colour has played a significant role in medicine in the western world from the time of Hippocrates up to the beginnings of modern scientific enquiry in the 19th century. The medical thinking of the ancient Greeks has proved singularly resilient. Remnants remain in our everyday language, from turning puce with rage or green with envy, and the many metaphors and images in between. It was thought that the disposition of each person was due to a combination of four humours: blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile. The balance between these gave rise to different temperaments, moods and emotions:  sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic. Each humour had qualities blended from natural states – hot, cold, dry and wet. For example, blood was hot and wet, phlegm, wet and cold. The humours were each associated with different organs of the body: the heart, the liver, and so on; and also with different colours. 

Well-being depended on the humours being in correct balance. Thus, the efforts of doctors to bring a patient back to good health were directed towards restoring a proper balance between the humours.  This was to be achieved mainly through changes to diet, environment and lifestyle. A holistic view that seems laudably progressive to me. Foods and recipes were prescribed according to diagnosis. A meal, for example, might be recommended consisting of ingredients that were all predominantly of the same colour in order to boost a particular humour, or diminish another. 

We’ve grown accustomed to a belief in continual incremental progress in medical technology.  A pill or procedure for each occasion. But decisions made in modern medicine seem often still to be informed by intelligent guess work. Some good, others questionable. I am grateful that so far, in my case, the prescribed hi-tech drugs have proved to be effectively spot on target.

© Benóg Brady Bates

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