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Who was Hippocrates?

Hippocrates

Photo courtesy of National Library of Medicine

Hippocrates, a Greek physician born circa 460 B.C., is considered the father of medicine. Although physicians have been known to practice since ancient Egyptian times, Hippocrates moved healing from superstition and magic closer to a modern scientific basis using observation, experimentation and trial and error remedies. He accurately described disease symptoms, and first described pneumonia and epilepsy. He wrote texts dealing with fractures, injuries to the head, ulcers and surgery, although some may have been written at a later date by his followers. In all things he emphasized the importance of diet, hygiene, exercise and sleep.

What is the Hippocratic Oath?

The Hippocratic Oath is steeped in history, although likely written long after Hippocrates died. Most, if not all, American medical schools have replaced this oath traditionally sworn by newly graduating physicians with more modern oaths. I have revised the following version substituting some of the archaic words of the original while trying to preserve the poetic language. However, there are five issues that still resonate in importance and controversy. See if you can pick out these very early references to:

  • Patient-physician confidentiality
  • Sexual contact between patient and physician
  • Respect for other health practitioners
  • Physician assisted suicide
  • Abortion

I swear by Apollo the physician, and Aesculapius, Hygeia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, that, according to my ability and judgment, I will fulfill this Oath and covenant.

To hold him who taught me this Art equally dear to me as my parents, and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine; to look upon his offspring as if they were my own, and to teach them this Art, if they shall wish to learn it, without fee or obligation; and that by example, lecture, and every other mode of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the Art to my own children, and those of my teachers, and to students who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the law of medicine, but none others.

I will follow that system of treatment which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is harmful to them. I will give no deadly drug to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and practice my Art.

I will not use the knife even on those suffering with the stone (bladder), but will leave this to be done by such men as are practitioners of this work (surgeons). Into whatever houses I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the sick, and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption; and, further, from the seduction of females or males, be they free or slaves.

What I may see or hear in the course of treatment, or not in connection with it, in the life of patients, which ought not to be spoken of abroad, I will not divulge, as believing that all such should be kept secret. While I continue to keep this Oath inviolate, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and practice of the Art, respected by all men, in all times. But should I violate this Oath, may the reverse be my lot.

Keep in mind that this was a statement of practice principles and not legally binding. Furthermore, the principles of the oath were not always consistent with the laws or cultures of the times, then or now. However, all physicians still are guided by the Hippocratic motto:¬†primum non nocere, “First, do no harm”.

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