Although Hippocrates has traditionally enjoyed the reputation of being the father of Greek medicine, little is known about him. Only a few references to him by contemporary or near-contemporary authors exist. According to these references, he came from the island of Kos, off the southwestern coast of Asia Minor, and was a teacher of medicine. He was a member of the Asclepiads, a family or guild of physicians that traced its origins to the god of healing, Asclepius. For reasons that are not clear, Hippocrates came to be idealized after his death, and he became the subject of an extensive biographical tradition. Four short biographies exist, together with a collection of spurious epistles that are attributed to Hippocrates. They assert that Hippocrates learned medicine from his father, who was also a physician. He is supposed to have taught medicine in Cos (which later boasted a famous school of medicine) and to have traveled throughout Greece, dying at an advanced age at Larissa in Thessaly, in northern Greece. Many of the biographical details recorded in these later works must be regarded as legendary. A large collection of about sixty medical treatises, the Hippocratic Corpus, came to be attributed to Hippocrates after his death. Most were written in the late fifth or fourth centuries b.c.e., but some were composed much later. The works are anonymous and are marked by differences in style. Even in antiquity it was recognized that not all of them were genuine, and attempts were made to determine which were written by Hippocrates. There is no reliable tradition that attests the authenticity of any of the treatises, and the internal evidence is inconclusive. Most modern scholars believe that none of them can be attributed with certainty to Hippocrates.
Hippocratic Medical Ethics
The ethical or deontological treatises of the Hippocratic Corpus (The Physician, Precepts, and Decorum, dates unknown) constitute the earliest writings on medical etiquette. They define the professional duties that should be expected of Greek physicians. Most of these principles of etiquette are the product of common sense. They recognize that certain types of conduct are inherently detrimental to the practice of medicine. Physicians should behave in a manner that will add dignity to their profession. Thus, they should look healthy and not be overweight. They should be gentlemen, cheerful and serene in their dealings with patients, self-controlled, reserved, decisive, and neither silly nor harsh. They should not engage in sexual relations with patients or members of their households. They are to be sensitive to the fees they charge, should consider the patient’s means, and should on occasion render free treatment. Many of these precepts are meant to preserve the reputation of the physician, which (in the absence of medical licensure) was his most important asset in building and maintaining a medical practice.
The Hippocratic Oath
The best-known, though most puzzling, of the Hippocratic writings is the so-called Hippocratic oath. The oath is characterized by a religious tenor. It begins with an invocation of the healing gods Apollo and Asclepius and includes a pledge to guard one’s life and art “in purity and holiness.” It is divided into two parts: the covenant, which is a contract between the teacher and his pupil; and the precepts, which defines the duty of the physician to his patients. The oath prohibits, among other things, dispensing a deadly drug, performing an abortion, and practicing surgery (or at least lithotomy). Several...
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