Hippocrates: The Father of Medicine
Hippocrates was born somewhere around the year 460 BC on the Greek island of Kos. But other than that, his biographical information is largely debated and considered largely untrue. One of the major problems with knowing his history is that Soranus of Ephesus wrote his first biography 500ish years after Hippocrates died. With that much time passing between his death and the writing of his biography, it is hardly reasonable to consider the information reliable. Especially when Hippocrates was such an important figure.
The Hippocratic Corpus is a historically important body of texts that Hippocrates gets credit for having written, but is accepted by historians that it was written by numerous authors over an extended period of time. There are numerous other physicians that practiced the Hippocratic form of medicine before and during Hippocrates’ time. All of the achievements of these men are commingled with Hippocrates himself; thus there really isn’t any way to sort out what’s his and what was the work of someone else. But, in the end, that isn’t important. He stands as a figure-head for a movement that occurred during the Greek era which involved many physicians and greatly changed medicine.
Hippocrates came up against the established Cnidian school of medicine. Hippocrates felt that the approach of the time had several serious flaws. The Cnidian school considered the body to be merely a collection of isolated parts, and saw diseases manifesting in a particular organ or body part as affecting that part only, which alone was treated. Hippocrates disagreed. He felt that the human body needed to be treated as a unified whole. He also disagreed with their system of diagnosis. They relied upon the subjective report of the patient. Hippocrates felt that an objective collection of data should also be included.
The Hippocratic School gave importance to the clinical doctrines of observation and documentation. These doctrines dictate that physicians record their findings and their medicinal methods in a very clear and objective way, so that these records may be passed down and employed by other physicians. Hippocrates made careful, regular note of many symptoms. Hippocrates extended clinical observations into family history and environment. The idea was that these records could then serve as a catalog which a doctor could refer to when treating a patient.
This approach suggested that the value in this data was that the effects of various treatments could be tracked on various symptom sets. This way doctors could assess their patients and look up similar cases. But this posed the problem of defining what similar meant and creating a system of grouping illnesses together. A system of classification requires that the cause of the illness be considered as well as the symptoms.
Hippocrates is credited with being the first person to believe that diseases were caused naturally, not because of superstition and gods. He separated the discipline of medicine from religion, believing and arguing that disease was not a punishment inflicted by the gods but rather the product of environmental factors, diet, and living habits. Indeed there is not a single mention of a mystical illness in the entirety of the Hippocratic Corpus. However, Hippocrates did work with many convictions that were based on what is now known to be incorrect anatomy and physiology.
Another important concept in Hippocratic medicine was that of a crisis, a point in the progression of disease at which either the illness would begin to triumph and the patient would succumb to death, or the opposite would occur and natural processes would make the patient recover. After a crisis, a relapse might follow, and then another deciding crisis. According to this doctrine, crises tend to occur on critical days, which were supposed to be a fixed time after the contraction of a disease. If a crisis occurred on a day far from a critical day, a relapse might be expected.
Hippocrates was reluctant to administer drugs and engage in specialized treatment that might prove to be wrongly chosen; generalized therapy followed a generalized diagnosis. Generalized treatments he prescribed include fasting and the consumption of apple cider vinegar. Hippocrates once said that “to eat when you are sick, is to feed your sickness.” However, potent drugs were used on certain occasions. This passive approach was very successful in treating relatively simple ailments such as broken bones which required traction to stretch the skeletal system and relieve pressure on the injured area. The Hippocratic bench and other devices were used to this end.
I swear by Apollo The Healer, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the Gods and Goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture.
To hold my teacher in this art equal to my own parents; to make him partner in my livelihood; when he is in need of money to share mine with him; to consider his family as my own brothers, and to teach them this art, if they want to learn it, without fee or indenture; to impart precept, oral instruction, and all other instruction to my own sons, the sons of my teacher, and to indentured pupils who have taken the physician’s oath, but to nobody else.
I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art. I will not use the knife, not even, verily, on sufferers from stone, but I will give place to such as are craftsmen therein.
Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free. And whatsoever I shall see or hear in the course of my profession, as well as outside my profession in my intercourse with men, if it be what should not be published abroad, I will never divulge, holding such things to be holy secrets.
Now if I carry out this oath, and break it not, may I gain for ever reputation among all men for my life and for my art; but if I transgress it and forswear myself, may the opposite befall me.
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:…
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.
Some points to be discussed
- How did the emphasis of documentation change medicine?
- What was the benefit of separating religion and medicine? What are some down falls?
- Why is the idea of crisis important?
- What are the benefits to passive medicine?
- What similarities do you see between Hippocratic medicine and Modern medicine?
- How has the oath effected medicine?
Sources and Further Reading
- History.Com has numerous posts that have information about Hippocrates. Some are in regards to his achievements and some are about the weird treatments he used.
And here’s the big one: