How Did the Doctors’ Hippocratic Oath Originate?
The Hippocratic Oath binding physicians to observe the medical code of ethics is named after Hippocrates (about 460-377 B.C.), an ancient Greek physician called the “father of medicine”.
It was first drawn up in the 4th or 5th century B.C., possibly by Hippocrates himself. Hippocrates belonged to a medical family. He was trained by his father and spent long years practicing medicine as he traveled through Greece in its golden age-the time of Plato, Socrates, Sophocles and Euripides.
He was such a brilliant physician that many people hailed him as the direct descendant of the god of medicine, Aesculapius. He was the first to separate medicine from superstition and magic and to base his treatment on actual observation and experience.
He and his pupils made careful records of their cases, and some of their observations are considered to be true even today. Hippocrates himself was the “ideal doctor”-wise, kindly and humane with a deep respect for his patient and his calling.
He left many writings, including perhaps the Hippocratic Oath. This is still the basis of medical conduct, and generally included in a doctor’s inaugural ceremony. Here is part of it, which expresses one of the central themes of the medical code.
“I will follow that system of regimen which according to my ability and judgment I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.
I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel…Whatever, in connection with my professional practice or not in connection with it, I see or hear in the life of men which ought not to be spoken of abroad, I will not divulge…”
The oath has been modified numerous times. One of the most significant revisions was first drafted in 1948 by the World Medical Association (WMA), called the Declaration of Geneva. “During the post World War II and immediately after its foundation, the WMA showed concern over the state of medical ethics in general and over the world.
The WMA took up the responsibility for setting ethical guidelines for the world’s physicians. It noted that in those years the custom of medical schools to administer an oath to its doctors upon graduation or receiving a license to practice medicine had fallen into disuse or become a mere formality”. In Germany during the Third Reich, medical students did not take the Hippocratic Oath, although they knew the ethic of “nil nocere” – do no harm.
In the 1960s, the Hippocratic Oath was changed to require “utmost respect for human life from its beginning”, making it a more secular obligation, not to be taken in the presence of God or any gods, but before only other people. When the Oath was rewritten in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, the prayer was omitted, and that version has been widely accepted and is still in use today by many US medical schools.
In the United States, the majority of osteopathic medical schools use the Osteopathic Oath in place of or in addition to the Hippocratic Oath. The Osteopathic Oath was first used in 1938, and the current version has been in use since 1954.
In a 1989 survey of 126 US medical schools, only three reported use of the original oath, while thirty-three used the Declaration of Geneva, sixty-seven used a modified Hippocratic Oath, four used the Oath of Maimonides, one used a covenant, eight used another oath, one used an unknown oath, and two did not use any kind of oath. Seven medical schools did not reply to the survey.
In a 2000 survey of US medical schools, all of the then extant medical schools administered some type of profession oath. Among schools of modern medicine, sixty-two of 122 used the Hippocratic Oath, or a modified version of it. The other sixty schools used the original or modified Declaration of Geneva, Oath of Maimonides, or an oath authored by students and or faculty. All nineteen osteopathic schools used the Osteopathic Oath.
In France, it is common for new medical graduates to sign a written oath. In 1995, Sir Joseph Rotblat, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, suggested a Hippocratic Oath for Scientists.