Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 314:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 314.

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 created them.

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 abetting suicide.

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 work.

(Theme music)

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. Lienhard.

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