“The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future — must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.”
Do you see the word, “first” in what is a quote from the work of Hippocrates, but not the text from which the eponymous oath was long ago inspired? Born on the island of Kos in 460 B.C., the private life of the great Greek Father of Medicine remains a mystery to historians. His knowledge of the workings of the human body, handed down by his father, however ensured his place in the ether of mankind. Hippocrates’ revelation, which has been passed to generations of physicians since, is that disease is not a scourge inflicted on mortals by the angry gods but rather a natural cause – an imbalance between the body’s physiology and psychology. The trade by which charlatans, exorcists and magicians made their way, preying upon ignorance and fear, was thus permanently impaired as the reality of medicine destroyed the myths the pretenders propagated to peddle their wares.
The ubiquitous staff on which a snake is wound represents more than the one phrase Hippocrates penned that was adapted into an oath. He wrote an entire set of books known as Corpus Hippocraticum. The quote above is contained in Of the Epidemic, one of around 70 early medical works collected in Alexandrian Greece. Because of the breadth of the works, it is impracticable to deduce that one person was capable of authoring the full opus. But that’s the beauty of Hippocrates — his clear capacity to inspire such that the Hippocratic School of Medicine lives on to this day, hence the reverence of the symbol that is synonymous with his name. The Rod of Asclepius is the Greek god of healing. The serpent coiled around it signifies the virtues of a being that can shed its skin and in turn be reborn and regenerated.
Those taking the “original” Hippocratic Oath, are committed to:
- respect and support their teachers
- share medical knowledge with others who are interested
- use their knowledge of medicine and diet to help patients
- avoid harming patients, including providing no “deadly medicine” even if requested to do so
- not provide a “remedy” that causes an abortion
- seek help from other physicians (such as a surgeon) when necessary
- avoid “mischief,” “injustice,” and “sexual relations” during visits to patients’ homes
- keep patient information confidential.
In modern day practice, it’s apparent some of the original tenets have been abandoned. While medicine has no doubt evolved, there is something to be said for the tradition espoused by Hippocratic purists. Consider how the classical Oath culminates, “If I fulfill this oath and do not violate it, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and art, being honored with fame among all men for all time to come; if I transgress it and swear falsely, may the opposite of all this be my lot.”