The Hippocratic Oath is a symbol of a collective moral and ethical promise from doctors united in a singular purpose to bring healing to their patients. It is named after Hippocrates, a Greek physician who was born in 460BC. Though the verbiage had changed over the centuries, many modern students of medicine take some manner of oath to follow the enduring guidelines established in that original document.
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Hippocrates earned the distinction as the "Father of Medicine" by pioneering a once primitive and archaic practice of medicine into a noble science based on study and observation. He apprenticed under his father, and would go on to found his own school of medicine on his home island of Cos. The Hippocratic Oath is attributed to him, though it may have had many authors. As time passed, the ideas within the oath became commonly accepted among physicians.
Ancient vs. Modern
Over the centuries the oath has evolved, much like the practice of medicine. Whereas the original oath swore allegiance to Greek deities such as Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia and Panaceia, more modern interpretations of the oath make the covenant an entirely personal one. Whereas the original document swore a faithful stewardship to teachers and mentors, modern text simply acknowledges the academic gains of those who have come before, and a willingness to share that knowledge with others.
Abortion and Euthanasia
Ancient text also made the physician promise not to perform abortions and euthanasia, stating, "I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art." The modern oath makes no such promise, instead stating, "If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God." This loose translation adapts to the changing modern times, where the legality of once forbidden medical practices make following oaths of this nature a matter of personal conscience.
A Moral Standard
The modern text of the Hippocratic Oath is less binding in practical matters, but more empathetic about the moral purpose of the medical profession. It focuses on treating the sick human rather than the disease, and participating responsibly as part of the larger community of humanity. It is a solemn promise to provide care and healing, prevent disease where possible and treat individuals with respect and compassion. Primarily, however, it is used as a barometer rather than strict regulation. Though commonly a part of a ceremony in medical school, it is not required. It is a symbol of a general ethic as opposed to stringent rules. If a doctor breaks any part of the oath, it is typically a matter of conscience than law. The exception to this is how the doctor breaks the oath, and if he is guilty of an actual crime, such as malpractice or neglect.
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- Notable Biographies: Hippocrates Biography
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- Catholic Association of Doctors and Nurses: The Hippocratic Oath
- Science Week: History of Medicine: On the Hippocratic Oath
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Greek Medicine The Hippocratic Oath
- Science Museum: Hippocratic oath