From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Hippocrates pictured left
Poetry of reality
Icon science.svg
We must know.
We will know.
A view from the
shoulders of giants.

Hippocrates (460–370 BCE) was an ancient Greek physician who is best remembered as the namesake of the Hippocratic Oath. He is one of the most influential figures in the history of medicine and is credited for shifting the discipline away from superstition towards empiricism.[1]

Early life and historicity[edit]

Although not his idea, Hippocrates is believed to have introduced the four humors into medicine.

Little about Hippocrates can be said with any great certainty. He was probably born on the Greek island of Kos, was not from an aristocratic background, worked, and died in mainland Greece. A few contemporary ancient Greek philosophers explicitly referenced him, including Plato and Aristotle, both of whom seemed to have held him in high regard.[2] But, no major biographies about him appeared until The Life of Hippocrates. This book has been attributed to Soranus of Ephesus, another physician, who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries.[3] It is the major source on the personal life of Hippocrates.

A large number of works (~60) are attributed to Hippocrates and have become known as the "Hippocratic Corpus".[4] There is, however, much uncertainty as to who authored the numerous treatises, letters, essays, and speeches attributed to him. A number of these documents were likely written by pupils or acquaintances. While others may have been written before or after his own lifetime. Despite this ambiguity, it is generally agreed that Hippocrates worked as a healer and teacher of some repute and was very likely the author of at least some documents attributed to him.[5][6] He may have lived to be anywhere from 80-100 years.[7]

Contributions to medicine[edit]

Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there also is love of humanity.

The historical consensus is that during the lifetime of Hippocrates Greek medicine drifted away from being largely supernatural to more rationalist in approach. Medicine had been heavily intertwined with Greek Gods. How much Hippocrates himself was responsible for this is unclear. His name, however, was consistently associated with a realist approach to the human body and medicine from antiquity. Hippocrates emphasized things like cause and effect, self care, and the importance of the physical body itself. He believed that disease was a natural affliction with natural explanations and not the result of magic. Generally speaking, the world of Greek medicine was moving towards a genuinely scientific understanding of disease, medication, health, anatomy and surgery.[8] The works associated with him contain numerous important biomedical observations and insights into patient care (essentially early medical ethics).

Hippocrates was also staunch advocate of both formalism and professionalism, that is, treating being a doctor as a serious line of work with high standards.[9]

Hippocratic Oath[edit]

Part of the Hippocratic oath on 3rd century papyrus.

Unlike other ancient Greek physicians, such as Galen,[note 1] Hippocrates continues to be widely remembered. This was do to the very famous Hippocratic oath attributed to him. Like many of the other works associated with him it is unclear how much the historical Hippocrates had to do with writing it. The oldest surviving version (~275 CE) is held by the Vatican.[10] The famous line "Do no harm" does not appear in that version although the phrase "I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm" does. Despite its antiquity and the anonymity of its true author, some doctors still find it relevant today.[11][12]

I swear before my gods, my ancestors, my teachers, my fellow healers and apprentices, and by all the arts and knowledge I was privileged to learn, that I will stand by these words:

I will love those who taught me these arts as I love my parents and I will offer my skills to the young with the same generosity that they were given to me. And I will never ask them for gold, but demand that they stand by this covenant in return. I also swear that if I earn fame and wealth, I will share it with my masters and my students.

I will soothe the pain of anyone who needs my art, and if I don’t know how, I will seek the counsel of my teachers.

I will offer those who suffer all my attention, my science and my love. Never will I betray them or risk their wellbeing to satisfy my vanity.

I will not hurt my fellow or put a knife to his flesh if I don’t know how, or give him an herb to soothe his pain, even if he begs for it in anguish, if it might take away his breath.

I will never harm my suffering friend, because life is sacred, from the tender fruit that he once was in his mother’s womb to that first sigh he gave out between her legs when he opened his eyes to the world.

I will try to understand his sorrows but his secrets will never leave my ears. Under no circumstance I will use his body to advance my knowledge or my fame, unless in his last moment, he or his widow give me his corpse, so that his death may help me understand how to soothe another’s pain.

I pray that the attention I give to those who put themselves in my hands be rewarded with happiness. And in honor of arion the knowledge I’ve received from my teachers, I swear to care for anyone who suffers, prince or slave.

If I ever break this oath, let my gods take away my knowledge of this art and my own health.

Here speaks a citizen, a servant of people. May I be destroyed if I betray these words.

A number of different versions and translations are available online including modernizations that remove references to Greek Gods.[14][15]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. Until the early modern period Galen was probably the most influential Greek physician in not only the Western world but also the Islamic world. As more of his theories were shown to be wrong or inadequate he faded from memory but Hippocrates' reputation continued on.


  1. Hippocrates (c. 450—c. 380 B.C.E.)
  2. Aristotle, Politics. "just as one would pronounce Hippocrates to be greater, not as a human being but as a physician, than somebody who surpassed him in bodily size"
  3. "Hippocrates". World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2022-06-04.
  4. Pederson, Tracy. Who Was Hippocrates? May 08, 2018.
  5. ibid.
  6. "Hippocrates". (c. 460-370 BC)". library.uab.edu. Retrieved 2022-06-04.
  7. Margotta, Roberto (1968), The Story of Medicine, New York: Golden Press.
  8. Tsiompanou, Eleni; Marketos, Spyros G (2013-7). "Hippocrates: timeless still". Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 106 (7): 288–292.
  9. Garrison, Fielding H. (1966), History of Medicine, Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company
  10. https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Urb.gr.64
  11. Relevance of the Hippocratic Oath in the 21st Century
  12. The Hippocratic Oath: Still relevant after 2,400 years?
  13. Hippocrates’s Oath
  14. The Hippocratic Oath: The Original and Revised Version
  15. Greek Medicine