Gaming Humoral Medicine

Humoral medicine was the predominant way to understanding sickness and health from the origins of the Western medical tradition in Ancient Greece until the middle of the nineteenth century, and yet people today tend to dismiss it as simply outdated and wrong. Over the summer, I’m going to explore creating an online, in-browser game that teaches people about humoral medicine by having them practice it.

The humoral medical tradition had its origins in the canonical works of Hippocrates and Galen. According to this tradition, the health of the body was determined by the balance between four humors – blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Each person had a unique balance of humors related to their sex and age that could be impacted by factors such food and drink, sleep, exercise and rest, excretion, emotional and mental state, and the air, (especially its heat). While the specific influence of Hippocrates and Galen waxed and waned in the millennia separating them from the nineteenth century, their ideas continued to influence treatments like cupping and bleeding.

Cheaper and faster printing techniques led to a proliferation of medical advice literature throughout the English-speaking world in the middle of the eighteenth century. These works were based in humoral understandings of bodies and targeted at the reading public. Cheap print domestic medical guides, like John Wesley’s Primitive Physick (1744) and William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1769), were popular, and all-purpose almanacs contained medical and environmental information.

I plan to build a game around probably just one of this genre of medical sources. Players will be presented with a patient’s symptoms and then try to cure them using the information in the medical guide and humoral remedies, including applying medicines like purgatives and performing bleedings. How the virtual patient reacts will also help the player further diagnose and treat them.

Players will learn about how illness was understood historically and how everyday people used medical guides to treat their friends and family.

This description of humoral medicine is largely excerpted (with edits) from Sean Morey Smith, “Seasoning and Abolition: Humoural Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic,” Slavery & Abolition 36, no. 4 (October 2015): 686–88.