The Hippocratic Oath

Extract

“I swear by Apollo the healer, by Aesculapius, by Health and all the powers of healing, and call to witness all the gods and goddesses that I may keep this Oath and Promise to the best of my ability and judgement.
            I will pay the same respect to my master in the Science as to my parents and share my life with him and pay all my debts to him. I will regard his sons as my brothers and teach them the Science, if they desire to learn it, without fee or contract. I will hand on precepts, lectures and all other learning to my sons, to those of my master and to those pupils duly apprenticed and sworn, and to none other.
            I will use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgement; I will abstain from harming or wronging any man by it.
            I will not give a fatal draught to anyone if I am asked, nor will I suggest any such thing. Neither will I give a woman means to procure an abortion.
            I will be chaste and religious in my life and in my practice.
            I will not cut, even for the stone, but I will leave such procedures to the practitioners of that craft.
            Whenever I go into a house, I will go to help the sick and never with the intention of doing harm or injury. I will not abuse my position to indulge in sexual contacts with the bodies of women and men, whether they be freemen or slaves.
            Whatever I see or hear, professionally or privately, which ought not to be divulged, I will keep secret and tell no one.
            If, therefore, I observe this Oath and do not violate it, may I prosper both in my life and in my profession, earning good repute among all men for all time. If I transgress and forswear this Oath, may my lot be otherwise.”

Lloyd, G.E.R. (ed). “The Oath” in Hippocratic Writings, (Penguin Classics, 1983), p.67.

 

Introduction/Context

Popular medical culture would attribute the penmanship of The Oath to Hippocrates (ca.460-370 BC), the “Father of Medicine”.[1] The Oath is one of over sixty medical texts within the Hippocratic Corpus, with the majority having been written in the Ionic dialect of Greek during Hippocrates’ active lifetime.[2] As there are some works written after this, all of the works comprising the Corpus are subject to scrutiny with regards to whether Hippocrates himself wrote The Oath (or indeed the other works attributed to him) for which he is most famous for. Despite this, Historian of medicine, Vivian Nutton, argues that “except from the Bible, no author from antiquity commands the authority in the twenty-first century of Hippocrates of Cos and the Hippocratic Oath”.[3]

 

Content

The Oath was designed as a contract between medical students and the Gods who watch over them, which must be taken before they embark on their studies to become a doctor. The extract primarily sets a standard by which doctors can be measured against, creating the basis for the modern medical profession. This standard includes abstaining from practices such as abortion, cutting, and other forms of harmful intent; the Oath also requires doctors to swear against moral wrongs such as gossip and sexual temptation. Failure to live up to these standards would be considered the “greatest medical sin”.[4] However, several practices referenced in the Corpus involve doctors breaking these rules, assuming they had in fact sworn to the oath in the first place; for example, a case of abortion can be found in the Nature of Man.[5] This inconsistency provides further evidence to the probability that The Oath, along with the remainder of the Corpus, were in fact penned by multiple hands, thus explaining the incidence of many point of views. [6] It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the ordinary medical man perhaps attributed his writings to Hippocrates in order to gain readership by his contemporary authority in the medical world to his advantage.

Despite the issues surrounding penmanship and inconsistencies in the works as a whole, The Oath is useful to medical historians as it is the first written testimony that provides an insight into how doctors saw their own profession.[7] It is evident that doctors saw it as their duty to teach their successors, free of charge. This implies that doctors practiced medicine selflessly because of their desire to help those in need. Furthermore, the existence of the Oath itself suggests that doctors were aware of their position of trust and responsibility within society. The fact that a set of rules have been prescribed in the first place provides further evidence for this, as if doctors did not value their role, they would not be concerned in setting or going by these standards.

Comment

Ultimately, The Oath is significant due to its survival, both physically and in practice. The fact that two millenniums later, we are aware of this text, shows the extent to which The Oath was valued as people save and pass on what they value, even if this survival occurs through the translating and copying by previous generations. If the Corpus was not valued by people in previous eras, then it perhaps would not have survived, in any form, for us to examine it today.[8] A version of the Hippocratic Oath is still taken by students embarking on medical degrees today, although whether the original Oath still holds relevance must be debated further, as it is perhaps outdated given it would forbid many modern aspects of surgery and medical practice; it’s moral obligation to the care of patients, however, is likely to persist. 

 

Bibliography

Bynum, William. The History of Medicine. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Lloyd, G.E.R. (ed). “The Oath” in Hippocratic Writings, (Penguin Classics, 1983), p.67.

Nutton, Vivian. Ancient Medicine (London and New York: Routledge, 2004).


[1] William Bynum, The History of Medicine. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p5; Vivian Nutton, Ancient Medicine (London and New York: Routledge, 2004) p.53.

[2] Nutton, p.60.

[3] Nutton, p.53.

[4] Nutton, p.53.

[5] Nutton, p.53, p.68.

[6] Bynum, p.6.

[7] Nutton, p.61.

[8] Bynum, p.5.

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