The Tree of Hippocrates – A Living Link to the Father of Medicine

Trees can move from relative obscurity into history books around the world for a number of reasons. Sometimes they live longer, grow taller, or extend over a wider region than their peers. Other times, they are simply in the right place at the right time to make an impact. The Tree of Hippocrates is one such example. It bore witness to the teachings of one of the most significant minds in history.

The story starts more than 2500 years ago on the Aegean island of Kos. Kos is part of Greece, but its location just 4 km (2 miles) from the coast of Turkey has made it an important port throughout history. Soldiers from Kos are even mentioned as fighting alongside the Greeks in Homer’s Illiad, dated around 1100 BC.

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A map of the island of Kos from 1702

Hippocrates of Kos – The Father of Medicine

The tiny island may have a long history, but its most famous resident was born around 460 BC. Hippocrates of Kos is frequently referred to as the ‘Father of Medicine’, and for good reason. In his time, little was known about the human body, and even less about disease and health. Most regarded disease, something which brought harm without a visible cause or reason, as punishment from the gods. Hippocrates dismissed this notion, and is the first person who correctly identified disease as a natural phenomenon caused by diet, living conditions, etc.

It is thus with regard divine nor more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause from the originates like other affections. Men regard its nature and cause as divine from ignorance and wonder…

-Hippocrates in On the Sacred Disease

This ‘revelation’ led to medicine becoming its own discipline, separate from religion and other superstitious influences. Hippocrates also demanded strict professionalism and rigorous record keeping in order to improve patient care. One example of this that is still relevant today is the Hippocratic Oath, which required physicians to declare that they would do everything in their power to avoid harming patients. It also included medical confidentiality, and is considered the birth of medical ethics. Although it has since been replaced by a much more modern code of ethics, swearing by the Hippocratic Oath is still considered a rite of passage for many medical students.

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Hippocrates lecturing his students beneath the plane tree – photo credit Wellcome Images

Hippocrates had an incredible mind, but much of the Hippocratic school of medicine is attributed to his disciples. Countless students were trained by Hippocrates on the island of Kos, and the legend goes that his favorite place to teach in the town center Kos. As anyone who has visited the Mediterranean during summer knows, the sun can be quite oppressive, so Hippocrates and his students took refuge beneath a large plane tree. His association with the tree eventually earned it the name ‘The Tree of Hippocrates’.

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Plane trees lining the paths of Retiro Park in Madrid – photo credit Jvhertum

Plane trees in cities around the world

Plane trees are exceptionally common, and grow all over the northern hemisphere. In the United States, it’s often called sycamore, although in the rest of the world that name is usually reserved for ficus sycomorus, a kind of fig tree. The bark of plane trees has been used medicinally in the past, and its wood is also valued, referred to as lacewood along with similar looking timber from several other species. Nowadays it’s mostly grown as an ornamental tree, and one strain was specifically cultivated to grow in cities. The so called London Plane casts shade on millions of people in cities around the world. They can be found lining the streets and paths of London, Madrid, Melbourne, New York, San Francisco, and countless others.

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The leaves of the plane tree

The ancient Chinese art of leaf carving

The plane tree’s leaves are flat and wide, making them ideal for an ancient Chinese art form returned to popularity in the 1990s – leaf carving. This is a process in which a leaf is treated with chemicals for 3 months to 3 years, then the outer layer of the leaf is carefully scraped off with a knife, leaving a transparent cutout of the desired image. The results are spectacular, and the distribution of the veins in a plane leaf allow for incredibly intricate carvings.

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A plane leaf (chinar) carving

The Tree of Hippocrates was an oriental plane, or platanus orientalis. These trees are found throughout the middle east and Asia. Chinar, as they are known in India and Pakistan, are a staple in Persian gardens. They are also considered sacred in Kashmir, where the largest of its species resides.

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The Tree of Hippocrates today – photo credit Kallerna

The Tree of Hippocrates spreads its influence around the world

But Greece is undoubtedly the original home of the oriental plane, and the Tree of Hippocrates is the largest in Europe. Or at least its descendant is. The tree under which Hippocrates of Kos disseminated his knowledge died long ago, and its spot in the town square was taken up by one of its descendants about 500 years ago. Much like the apple tree that crossed paths with Isaac Newton, the cuttings of the Tree of Hippocrates have been sent to colleges of medicine around the world. As stated at a recent planting in Malaga, Spain, these trees serve as a symbol of the humanitarian side of medicine in an age when technological advances threaten to dehumanize interactions between doctors and patients.

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A clone of the Tree of Hippocrates at the National Institutes of Health – photo credit NIH

If you enjoyed this article about The Tree of Hippocrates, check out the archive for more tree stories. Looking for longer reads? The recommended reading section has a carefully curated list of the best tree books available. Also check out the new Facebook page, with a few extra tree goodies throughout the week. Feel free to drop a comment below. It’s always nice to hear from you!

9 thoughts on “The Tree of Hippocrates – A Living Link to the Father of Medicine”

  1. I’m starting my own personal “directory” of your great blogs – alpha by subject with links.
    I can’t imagine the time you invest in all this interesting research, but I can tell it is nourishing to you (and it certainly is to your followers). Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. WOW! I did not know that anyone else knew about this! I could not find much information about it earlier when I was trying t research it. One of the trees from the Tree of Hippocrates is at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz. It was planted in about 1968. I will eventually get a cutting from it.

    Liked by 1 person

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