Biography

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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.

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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 stipulations of the oath are not consonant with ethical standards prevalent elsewhere in the Hippocratic treatises, while some practices prohibited by the oath (induced abortion, euthanasia, and surgery) were routinely undertaken by Greek physicians. It is difficult, moreover, to find a context in which to place the oath. Although it was traditionally attributed (like the other Hippocratic treatises) to Hippocrates, it is anonymous. It has been dated as early as the sixth century b.c.e. and as late as the first century of the Christian era (when it is first mentioned). Most scholars assign it to the fifth or fourth century b.c.e., making it roughly contemporaneous with Hippocrates. It has been suggested that it was administered to students who were undertaking a medical apprenticeship, but there is no evidence that it ever had universal application in the Greek world. Greek and Roman physicians were not required to swear an oath or to accept and abide by a formal code of ethics. To be sure, ethical standards appear in the Hippocratic Corpus, but no one knows how widespread these standards were among medical practitioners in antiquity. The oath appealed to Christian physicians, however, who in late antiquity took over its precepts and infused them with new meaning. It was later adopted by Christian, Jewish, and Moslem physicians as a covenant by which physicians could govern their practices. There have been a number of attempts to explain away the problem passages of the oath or to attribute it to an author whose views represented those of a group that lay outside the mainstream of medical ethics as described in the Hippocratic Corpus. The most notable is the attempt by Ludwig Edelstein to demonstrate that the oath originated in the Pythagorean community. Parallels can be found outside Pythagoreanism for even the most esoteric injunctions of the oath, however, and its Pythagorean origin cannot be said to have been conclusively proved.

The Influence of Hippocratic Ethics

The medical-ethical treatises of the Hippocratic Corpus have exercised great influence on the formulation and development of Western medical ethics. In establishing not only guidelines for the physician’s deportment but also standards of professional obligation, they created both the basis of Greek medical ethics and an ideal of what the physician ought to be. Even in the rapidly changing field of bioethics, their influence continues to be felt to the present day.

Further Reading:

Amundsen, Darrel. Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. A scholarly yet accessible history of ethical issues in medicine in the ancient and medieval worlds, including the ethics of the Hippocratic oath. Comprehensive footnotes and index.

Carrick, Paul. Medical Ethics in Antiquity: Philosophical Perspectives on Abortion and Euthanasia. Boston: Reidel, 1985.

Edelstein, Ludwig. The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1943. This monograph argues that the Hippocratic oath represented the opinion of a small segment of Greek medical society, was based on Pythagorean principles, and served as a voluntary oath of conscience between teacher and student.

Goldberg, Herbert S. Hippocrates, Father of Medicine. New York: Franklin Watts, 1963. A short, simple overview of the life and work of Hippocrates, his times, and his relevance to modern health practice. Includes index.

Heidel, William Arthur. Hippocratic Medicine: Its Spirit and Method. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941. Heidel discusses the close connections among science, philosophy, history, and medicine in the period of Hippocratic medicine. Provides notes and sources.

Jones, W. H. S., trans. Hippocrates. 4 vols. 1923-1931. Reprint. New York: Putnam, 1995. Among the best English translations and critical editions of Hippocratic writings, this work is part of the Loeb Classical Library edition. Greek texts face their English counterparts.

Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 51, no. 4 (October, 1996). This issue is dedicated to the Hippocratic oath and its influences. It opens with a new translation of the oath, with a commentary by Heinrich von Staden, and continues with a history of the oath’s influence during the Middle Ages (by Carlos Galvão-Sobrinho), the Renaissance (by Thomas Rütten), and modern times (by Dale Smith). Each article is extensively footnoted, and the citations provide a comprehensive overview of recent scholarship on the Hippocratic oath and its influence on later ages.

King, Helen. Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 1998. Explores early gynecology as based on ideas about women taken from myths. King argues that doctors twisted ancient Greek texts into ways of controlling women’s behavior.

Levine, Edwin Burton. Hippocrates. New York: Twayne, 1971. Levine introduces the problems of scholarship in identifying authorship of the Hippocratic writings. The discussion focuses on ideas presented in various selected essays. Includes notes, an index, and an extensive annotated bibliography.

Moon, Robert Oswald. Hippocrates and His Successors in Relation to the Philosophy of Their Time. New York: AMS Press, 1979. This work briefly categorizes the philosophies underlying the practice of ancient medicine before and after Hippocrates. Index.

Phillips, E. D. Greek Medicine. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973. Phillips traces practical and theoretical achievements of Greek medicine up to Galen. Includes selected references to the Hippocratic collection, an appendix on the cult of Asclepius, illustrations, an extensive bibliography, and indexes.

Temkin, Owsei. Hippocrates in a World of Pagans and Christians. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Examines the ways in which Hippocratic practice helped establish a relationship between medicine and monotheistic worship.

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