Weatherwatch: the winds that brought good or ill health

David Hambling
North, south and westerly winds were all believed to cause medical problems; only an easterly wind was ‘spring-like and healthy’. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA

Before the modern era, much of the interest in the winds focused on their impact on health rather than their value in predicting future weather. Hippocrates, writing around 400BC, claimed that the wind had different medical effects depending on the direction from which it blew. This was an accepted truth for 2,000 years.

Hippocrates associated the four winds with the four seasons and the four supposed bodily humours. In his work on Airs, Waters and Localities he advised any physician in a new city to study the prevailing winds carefully.

According to Hippocrates, warm, summery south winds bring “dullness of hearing, dimness of visions, heaviness of the head, torpor, and languor,” while wintry north winds produce “coughs, afflictions of the throat, hardness of the bowels, dysuria [painful urination] … and pains of the sides and breast.”

A west wind, being autumnal in nature, was dangerously changeable and could carry all kinds of infectious diseases. Hippocrates believed the brain was a pneumatic organ, containing air and susceptible to the winds. Hence vulnerable children needed to be shielded from the west wind, or they might suffer from epileptic fits.

The east wind, however, was spring-like and healthy. It helped to balance the four humours.

These beliefs were accepted medical wisdom for centuries. It was not until the Victorian era that doctors and meteorologists finally concluded that wind was simply motion of the air, and that it was not necessarily more dangerous from a particular point of the compass.