Ancient Oath with A Modern Meaning: An Examination of the Validity of the Hippocratic Oath.

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Validity of the Hippocratic Oath     1


HS 301 Ancient Greece

Ancient Oath with A Modern Meaning:

An Examination of the Validity of the Hippocratic Oath

Thomas G. Spearman

American Military University

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     One of the major changes to emerge out of the Greek Classical period was that of scientific inquiry into physical phenomenon.   It occurred when Hippocrates embarked on a career in the healing arts over 2,400 years ago.  His methods were decidedly scientific, relying upon observations which, when collated and analyzed, led to certain actions that could benefit patients. This was a watershed event in that it relied upon the cause and effect theory, rather than consultation of oracles or entreaties to gods for healing. Right and correct actions lead to positive and desirable results. This method made Hippocrates the innovator of his day.  One innovation that stands out in particular was the creation of an oath that encompassed the practice of medical ethics. It wasn’t the first code of medical ethics, but it certainly was and still is, the longest lasting. (Hammurabi, a Babylonian king, was probably the first; he devised a code that determined how many shekels were to be paid for physician services and which part of their bodies would be amputated if they killed the patient!) [McGraw-Hill, 1966]. This discussion will focus on the Hippocratic Oath, both ancient and modern, to determine why it was and still is, enduring.  It will also attempt to answer the question—does the oath, representing a medical legacy from an ancient past, written so many hundreds of years ago, stand the test of time?  To facilitate this discussion it would behoove the reader to acquaint themselves with the original oath, written around 400 B.C., and the updated version by Dr. Louis Lasagna, in 1969 (pages 9 and 10 respectively in the appendix). Before tackling these questions, first let us look at some of the history behind the Hippocratic Oath to gain a better perspective of how it came into being.

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     In ancient times the practice of the healing arts was a hit or miss proposition.  The Greek gods, Apollo, Asclepius, Hygeia, and Panaceia were deified for their powers to heal.  Going back further, the Egyptian god Thoth presided over the treatises on medicine preserved on clay tablets.  These practices grew out of attempts by early philosophers to explain natural phenomena.  Whereas philosophers chose the rational approach, physicians took the empirical approach, based on observation and reasoning, and thus began the Hippocratic method, (1966). Over 60 medical treatises were written describing these methods.  In part 20 of the Corpus Hippocraticum, Hippocrates himself highlights this dichotomy:

Certain sophists and physicians say that it is not possible for anyone to know medicine who does not know what man is, and that whoever would cure men properly, must learn this in the first place.  But this saying rather appertains to philosophy and how he first was made and constructed.  I think whatever such has been said or written by sophist or physicians concerning nature has less connection with the art of

medicine than with the art of painting.  And I think that one cannot know anything certain respecting nature from any other quarter than from medicine; and that this knowledge is to be attained when one comprehends the whole subject of medicine properly. (Internet Classics Archive, translated by Francis Adams)

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Here you have a clear message as to where he stands.  When the ancient Greek civilization was at its peak during the 400’s BC, sick people sought magical cures in temples.  It was Hippocrates belief that every disease had only natural causes and that a well-trained physician could cure illness with knowledge gained from medical writings or experience (Jason Frasco, Ancient Greek ...

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