Do you spend a lot of time in the car? I’ve been using my long drive to work as a time for listening and learning. I’ve listened to mysteries, A Tale of Two Cities, and lectures on the intellectual history of modern thought, the Civil War, and DNA. Recently, I heard a fascinating history of scientific medicine through biographies of the great doctors. The series began, naturally enough, with Hippocrates. Hippocrates is considered to be the father of modern medicine. His school developed the theory of health that emphasizes a proper balance of four bodily humours. If you have too much of one, you’ll be either phlegmatic, melancholic, sanguine or choleric.
Hippocrates was a Greek physician in the 4th century BC. He is most widely known for the Hippocratic Oath. But, like his theory of the four humours, the oath is now passé, a relic of a bygone era that is irrelevant to modern medical practice. You might be surprised to know that medical schools no longer require their graduates to take the Oath. Instead, many schools offer alternative professional oaths more in line with “modern” values and culture, with little resemblance to the original Hippocratic Oath.
The Oath outlined the duties of physicians to their gods, their teacher and their patients. Students were expected to follow this strict ethical code, to “profess” their commitment. This was the origin of medicine as a profession. The vow was a shining contrast to many of the accepted practices of Greco-Roman physicians. Later, this oath was adopted by Christian physicians and was accepted as the common code of ethics in Western medicine.
Central to the Hippocratic Oath is the physician’s pledge to use medicine “to help the sick according to my ability and judgment,” and to “never use it to injure or wrong them.” This statement offered a clear description of the goal of medicine—help the sick—and the role of a physician—do no harm. This vow became the primary principle every good physician was to follow.
Physicians also vow to “not give poison to anyone though asked to do so” nor “give a pessary to a woman to cause an abortion.” You can detect the ban against euthanasia and abortion. Such participation would violate the proper role of a physician as a healer. This vow affirms the Hippocratic physician’s commitment to preserve human life and avoid patient injury.
What has happened to Hippocratic medicine? Three states have authorized physician-assisted suicide. Doctors can prescribe lethal drugs for terminally ill patients. Nearly one million elective abortions are performed each year by doctors who should profess to “first, do no harm.”
Christians adopted the Hippocratic Oath—without the pagan gods—because it was consistent with biblical values upholding the dignity of each human life. The Hippocratic Oath is as relevant today as it has ever been. There are simply some things that should never change, including the commitment of the physician to help, heal, and preserve human life.
Now learning that is worth the long drive to work.
 R.D. Orr, N. Pang, E.D. Pellegrino, and M. Siegler, “Use of the Hippocratic Oath: A Review of the Twentieth Century Practice and a Content Analysis of Oaths Administered in Medical Schools in the U.S. and Canada in 1993,” Journal of Clinical Ethics 8 (1997): 377-388.