Hippocratic Oath

The Hippocratic Oath In History

HIPPOCRATES
“Historians tell us that Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, was particularly concerned with the financial corruption of physicians. It seems that of the seven capital sins that continue down the centuries to plague mankind, it is avarice – which has as its end the inordinate accumulation of goods and inordinate financial gain – that has perpetually tempted the physician along with his fellow lawyer.

"Hence, Hippocrates adjured the physician in practicing his art to pay more heed to service than to fees; to concentrate on healing patients rather than making money.” [Friends of the Michael Fund Newsletter, Spring 2000, www.michaelfund.org; International Fdn for Genetic Research]

 

 Revered as the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) is without question the most famous physician in antiquity.

Teaching 'neath a Plane Tree on the Greek Isle of Cos, the place of his birth, and exhibiting remarkable powers of observation, he studied, diagnosed and treated patients, recording his clinical observations and drawing conclusions regarding etiology and prognosis.

Large numbers of apprentice physicians attended his clinics, spread his fame, and assisted in preserving the writings which have come down to us as the Hippocratic corpus.(1) (2)

Dispute exists as to whether Hippocrates in fact specifically authored certain papers in the Hippocrates corpus. There is even disagreement whether Hippocrates authored the famous Oath associated with his name or whether it was committed to writing by one or several of his followers some time after his death. (3) (4)

Regardless of the specific authorship of the famous Oath, that it comes down to us from that era is denied by none. Undeniable also is the fact that it profoundly influenced the practice of medicine across recorded history.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead pointed out that prior to Hippocrates, the shaman and the doctor could be the same person. With Hippocrates, Mead wrote:

"For the first time in our tradition there was a complete separation between killing and curing. Throughout the primitive world, the doctor and the sorcerer tended to be the same person. He with the power to kill had power to cure, including specially the undoing of his own killing activities. He who had the power to cure would necessarily also be able to kill…With the Greeks the distinction was made clear. One profession, the followers of Asclipius [Aesculapius], were to be dedicated completely to life under all circumstances, regardless of rank, age or intellect — the life of a slave, the life of the Emperor, the life of a foreign man, the life of a defective child…"

Mead calls the Oath's interdiction of ever deliberately killing:   "…a priceless possession of society which we cannot afford to tarnish, but society always is attempting to make the physician into a killer — to kill the defective child at birth, to leave the sleeping pills beside the bed of the cancer patient…It is the duty of society to protect the physician from such requests." (5)

So it can be seen that the appearance of the Oath (c. 400 B.C.) represented a clear dividing line after which medicine was unalterably committed to protecting life and never deliberately killing. This found expression in the Oath's simple grandeur with an admirable economy of words — "I will give no one a deadly medicine even if asked, nor counsel any such thing; I will not give a woman a pesary to induce abortion…"

The Oath represented the gold standard of moral and ethical behavior to which all physicians who took it were bound. Where lived up to, it protected patient, family, physicians and society. 

Where violated, as it was massively this century in the Third Reich, the darkest chapters in medical history were written, culminating in physicians in the dock charged and found guilty of "crimes against humanity". (6)

Medicine responded vigorously to those violations and betrayals.

At Geneva in 1949, the unchanging principles of the Oath were restated in the unanimously adopted Medical Declaration of Geneva with its additional magnificent line, "I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of its conception".

Almost simultaneously, exposition of the doctrine of informed consent regarding medication and non-therapeutic experimentation was ringingly affirmed at Helsinki…

Bibliography

1 Richards, D.W. "Hippocrates in History", pp.27-28 in bulger, R.J. In Search of the Modern Hippocrates, University of Iowa, 1987.

2 Jones, W.H.S. The Doctor's Oath: An Essay in the History of Medicine, p. 24. Cambridge University Press, 1924. See also Jones, Hippocrates, pp. 299 and 301, Harvard University Press, 1924.

3 Cameron, N.M.deS. "The Hippocratic Legacy" in The New Medicine: Life and Death after Hippocrates, pp. 23-45, Crossway Books, 1991.

4 Edelstein, L. The Hippocratic Oath Text: Translation and Interpretation. p.vii, Johns Hopkins Press, 1943.

5 Mead, M. cited in Levine, M. Psychiatry and Ethics, pp.324-325, G. Braziller, 1972.

6 Alexander, L. "Medical Science under Dictatorship", New England Journal of Medicine, 39:39-44, 1949.

[Excerpts from "Hippocrates Rises Anew: The Still Relevant Hippocratic Oath", by Joseph R. Stanton, M.D., E. Joanne Angelo, M.D., Marianne Luthin, M.Ed., Boston MA, as presented at Third World Congress of Pro-Life Movements, Rome, 2-4 Oct 1995]