Humours, Humors and Hormones

  • Bernard T. Donovan


Over the years innumerable attempts have been made to account for the humour or behaviour of a person on the basis of the influence, in one direction or another, of rather few humoral or chemical factors. The ancients had no inkling of chemistry, and relied instead upon intuition with a larding of everyday observation. For the Greek physicians and philosophers the body was supposed to be comprised of four basic elements: fire, air, water and earth. In turn, each element had two qualities, with fire being hot and dry, air being hot and moist, water cold and moist, and earth being cold and dry. The qualities of hot, cold, moist and dry were then transformed into the four humors, which were blood (hot and moist), phlegm (cold and moist), yellow bile (hot and dry) and black bile (cold and dry). Inevitably, the theories proved inadequate as knowledge accumulated, but for centuries it was sincerely believed that to be sanguine was to be the lucky possessor of blood containing an optimal mixture of the all-important humors. Actually, arterial blood was supposed to contain a lot of sanguine which accounted for the bright red and healthy appearance of that fluid. On the other hand, the melancholic suffered from an excess of nasty black bile, while the lethargic suffered from an excess of phlegm. Phlegm was a product of the lungs or brain and could be drained through the nose, as was very evident in many ill people.


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Further Reading

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Copyright information

© Bernard T. Donovan 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bernard T. Donovan
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhysiologyInstitute of PsychiatryLondonUK

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