69. The Hippocratic Oath and other medical writings (430-330 BC)

69. The Hippocratic Oath and other medical writings (430-330 BC)

Plot : A selection of medical writings from the Hippocratic Corpus depicting the perspective and understanding of the Ancient Greeks. Mostly dated between 430 BC and 330 BC, and written by a large number of anonymous medical practitioners but probably none by Hippocrates.

Reading the Penguin assortment Hippocratic writings edited by G. Lloyd (ISBN 0140444513)

My thoughts:

Firstly, the Hippocratic Oath (page 67). A one page statement which includes some familiar ethical points such as

  • The doctor will not do harm to a patient, nor condone euthanasia or abortion,
  • The doctor will not take sexual advantage of his patients
  • The doctor will not disclose confidential information about his patient

I use the masculine pronoun throughout as there is no mention of female doctors in this Age, who were probably called in as midwives.

Also of note is the requirement that a doctor will pass on ‘the Science’ to his sons, his master’s (teacher’s) sons, and approved apprentices but to no one else. Obviously there was a level of secrecy about the profession of practising medicine, probably to protect both the reputation and financial security of the doctor, and instill some mystery in the profession to impress the masses. Also surgery, such as it was, was already a distinct profession, as part of the oath was that doctors would not cut into the patient.

As for the rest of the writings, as they all seem to be written by different authors, I will simply mention what interested or intrigues me.

In Tradition in medicine (also called On ancient medicine) the author mentions how people departing from their usual dietary habit of either one or two meals per day will lead to illness. Those who only eat dinner will be ill if eating an unaccustomed lunch, while those used to a midday meal will be sick if they abstain (page 76) What happened to breakfast being the most important meal of the day? And I’m sure the Greek armies on the plains of Troy had a hot meal over their fires after a cold night beside their ships. A little further on, the author discusses how some people cannot eat much cheese as something in their bodies is inimical to it – lactose intolerance recognised in 400 BC?

Epidemics, Books I and III are part of a series of seven books in the whole set which record case studies.  The precise weather history for preceding seasons is described in detail, and then the various fevers and diseases following, with fevers in particular described by the periodicity of their relapses – tertian fevers have three day cycles, quartan with four day cycles, and so on. Daily observations and descriptions of individuals’ symptoms are very detailed, stretching up to eighty days in one case, and notice is taken of what common factors resulted in survival versus death. A lot of these case histories were of little literary interest to anyone other than a doctor so I skipped on to the next section.
The Science of Medicine takes up the defence of medicine as a science against its detractors, and includes some pithy one-liners which science lovers will embrace. My favourite was

“Every phenomenon will be found to have some cause, and if it has a cause, chance can be no more than an empty name”                                                                                                                                                page 142

Airs, waters, places describes how different locales, and their climate and geography will have a major effect on the illnesses suffered by the local population, and indicates that at least some doctors must have earned their living by traveling from village to village.

The next chapters, Prognosis and Regimen in Acute Diseases, contain far too many descriptions of unhealthy faeces, urine, vomit and breaking wind, so I acknowledged I never would have made a successful doctor, and move on to perhaps the easiest chapter to digest 😉 : Aphorisms which is a list of pithy phrases ideal for dipping into by the layman. Here are some choice examples that seem to speak beyond just medicine.

“Life is short, science is long ; opportunity is elusive, experiment is dangerous, judgement is difficult”  page 206

“In the case of athletes, too good a condition of health is treacherous … for it cannot quietly stay as it is and therefore … can only change for the worse … it is well to lose no time in putting an end to such a good condition of health…”

“Desperate cases need the most desperate remedies”   page 207

“In winter and spring, stomachs are warm and sleep longest”   page 208

“Do not judge the stools by their quantity but by their quality”    page 209

“It is better to be full of drink than full of food”

Next comes a chapter on The Sacred Disease, otherwise known as epilepsy. The author strongly argues that this was not visited on the afflicted by divine selection as was apparently the commonly held belief at that time, but criticizes the “witch-doctors, faith healers, quacks and charlatans” who insist on various dietary, behavioral and ritual purification cures. If the patient is cured, it is put down to their wisdom and skill, but any deaths are due to the Gods.

Before I finish this post (admitting I have only skimmed most of the remainder of the book), I must add a word on Dreams . It would seem that when the body is awake, the soul is devoted to various bodily functions, but once the body sleeps, the soul is roused and independent, and perceives all around it. If the dream reflect the usual daytime activities, then all is well ; but if there is conflict or victory over daily activities, than an emetic followed by a brisk early morning walk or even gymnastics are called for. Specific medical dreams to watch out for are trees that bear no fruit (sterility), rivers running irregularly (blood flow), springs and wells (bladder troubles), rough seas (bowels), floods (excess fluids), droughts (dehydration) and monstrous apparitions obviously denote madness.

And according to The Seed, human semen comes from the brain, traveling down to the testicles via the spinal cord and kidneys, and is the foam arising from the agitation of the most potent fluids from all over the body. Good to know, and explains why some of us always seem to have sex on the mind.


The obvious question is whether today’s doctors still take the Hippocratic Oath?  The modern equivalent is the Declaration of Geneva, formulated after the end of the Second World War. The modern version arguably tones down the strict criteria against euthanasia and abortion, stating that the practitioner will “maintain the utmost respect for human life”, and extends the confidentiality of knowledge gained about the patient even after their death. While there have been various amendments to the Declaration, there also appears to be alternate versions with even more leeway  in acting to end life.

 Personal rating: Just a 4 unless you are a medical student or enjoy a good plague.

Next: The ‘wisdom’ books of the Old Testament : Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and The Song of Solomon


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