Today, let's meet Hippocrates. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Hippocrates was a pretty
shadowy figure. We know he was born around 460 BC
and that he fathered a great school of medical
writings. But that school is a body of learning put
together by many different people.
Hippocrates's school replaced the quasi-magical
medicine of the older Greeks with holistic and
clinical practices. Hippocratic doctors had a lot
to say about the balance of nature's forces in the
human body. They were very good at prognosis. They
depended on intervening at just the right moment in
the course of a sickness; so they knew a lot about
the sequence of events in disease.
Their intervention was minimal. They weren't great
surgeons. They'd set bones and vent abscesses. But
part of the famous Hippocratic Oath is a specific
promise not to cut out kidney stones. That was a
grizzly business in those days, and it was left to
people called cutters who made a specialty of stone
removals. The Oath also excluded abortion and
Hippocratic doctors were keen observers in a world
without microscopes or thermometers. The most
sensitive and accurate instruments they had were
their own senses. So we're repelled and fascinated
to find they did extensive looking, smelling,
feeling, and even tasting to diagnose sickness.
One Hippocratic shortcoming was a part of Greek
culture. The Greeks believed the dead should be
buried quickly with their bodies undefiled. So
medical dissection was almost unthinkable.
For 500 years the practical and humane Hippocratic
school led medicine about as far as it could go
without dissection and modern instruments. Then it
slid back into mysticism and magic during the days
of Imperial Rome. The practical mindset of the
Hippocratic doctors reemerged only after the Black
Plague, in the 15th century.
Hippocratic doctors called their medicine the Art.
Part of the Oath says, "With purity and holiness I
will pass my life and practice my Art." We're
surprised to learn that one of the most famous
Latin quotations is the opening line of The
Aphorisms of Hippocrates, and it refers
specifically to this Art:
Life is short, the Art is long, opportunity
fleeting, experience delusive, judgment difficult.
We'd like to impress those
self-deprecating words on some of the more
overconfident doctors we meet today. But then, so
much of the Hippocratic mindset seems as fresh now as
it was 2500 years ago.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Nuland, S.B., Doctors: The Biography of
Medicine. New York, Vintage Books, 1988.
The text of the Oath of Hippocrates:
I swear by Apollo the physician, and Aesculapius,
Hygeia, and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses,
that, according to my ability and judgment, I will
keep this Oath and this covenant:
To reckon him who taught me this Art equally dear
to me as my parents, to share my substance with
him, and relieve his necessities if required; to
look upon his offspring on the same footing as my
own brothers, and to teach them this Art, if they
shall wish to learn it, without fee or stipulation
and that by precept, lecture, and every other mode
of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the
Art to my own sons, and those of my teachers, and
to disciples who have signed the covenant and have
taken an oath according to the law of medicine, but
no one else.
I will follow that system of regimen which,
according to my ability and judgment, I consider
for the benefit of patients, and abstain from
whatever is deleterious and mischievous.
I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked,
nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I
will not give to a women an abortive remedy. With
purity and with holiness I will pass my life and
practice my Art.
I will not cut persons laboring under the stone,
but will leave this to be done by such men as are
practitioners of this work.
Into whatever houses I enter, I will go into them
for the benefit of the sick, and will abstain from
every voluntary act of mischief and corruption;
and, further, from the seduction of females or
males, of freemen and slaves.
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, as reckoning
that all such should be kept secret.
While I continue to keep this Oath unviolated, may
it be granted to me to enjoy life and practice of
the Art, respected by all men, in all times. But
should I trespass and violate this Oath, may the
reverse be my lot.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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