Physician is a word derived from the Greek root physike which means literally “purge” or “cleanse.” A good dictionary will also include figurative meanings from the Greek, such as “cure, health, nature.”At first the gap between “purge,” “nature” or “health” might seem closer to an abyss, but the early Greeks knew exactly what they had in mind.
In Hippocrates’ time – before the days of Big Pharma, Physicians Desk Reference (PDR), Tums, Advil and all the like – doctors observed that internal cleanliness was the key to glowing health. They saw that when the body was relieved of daily wastes and poisons, a person, who basically lived and ate in tune with nature, enjoyed a healthy state of being – the natural birthright of man.
Sickness, these doctors noted, developed when the internal balance was disturbed by the strains and excesses of daily living. Bodily processes did not function as efficiently, including the organs of elimination; toxins built up, creating a more acid environment conducive to disease. The physician was the one who assisted in giving the physic or purge, thus relieving the overload and – along with proper diet and rest – allowing the patient to heal. The physician who practiced this art of medicine was no doubt much revered, but he viewed his role primarily as teacher of healthy habits for living. Hence “physike” became synonymous with words like “cure, nature, health.”
Today the word physician is sadly bereft of its roots. Our medical schools are turning out lots of physicians, but the physike has been largely relegated to the reveling of etymologists in their dusty dictionaries – “old-fashioned” or “weird” notions of a pre-modern age. The physician we know (and too often worship) is basically one taught to alleviate health problems with chemical medications that do nothing to rid the body of its poisons. The concept of internal cleansing is far from the centerpiece of healing. Instead of working with the natural physiology, modern physicians have mastered the art of matching drugs to ailments – pharmaceuticals that block natural functions to temporarily relieve symptoms, while adding to the toxic load.
As the 21st Century advances, we might well ask: where and how it is that physicians, who proudly take the Hippocratic Oath, have become so disconnected from the wisdom of this etymology? Perhaps it’s time to ask for our word’s worth!