The Hippocratic Oath is one of the oldest and most popular known codes of ethics.
The original text is attributed to Hippocrates, a Greek physician commonly credited with beginning the practice of medicine as a rational science.
Hippocrates differed from some of his peers and the practitioners who came before him in taking a holistic view of medicine, effectively beginning the practice of whole-person care.
Let’s have a look at the history of the Hippocratic Oath.
History of Hippocrates Oath
Like modern codes of medical ethics, the classical Hippocratic Oath included a pledge to practice medicine to the best of the individual’s ability and judgement and to defer to the expertise of trained surgeons where necessary.
The oath also included the promise of patient confidentiality, perhaps the first such for professional practice committed to writing.
Nonetheless, contrary to popular belief, “first do no harm” was not included in the original Hippocratic Oath, as you shall see below.
Rather, classical doctors reciting the pledge promised to “abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous,” to “give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked,” and to “abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption”.
It is likely that the misconception of “first do no harm” came from a motto found elsewhere in Hippocrates’ writings: “The physician must…have two special objectives in view with regard to disease, namely to do good or to do no harm.”
The Hippocratic Oath was modern for its time; in fact, it might have been too modern, as there are few references to the document between its initial appearance around 400 BCE and the Middle Ages.
In 1500s Germany medieval scholars rediscovered and updated the document to adhere to Christian practices, though it was still not widely disseminated.
It was not until the 1700s when the document was translated into English that Western medical schools began regularly incorporating the oath in convocations.
Hippocratic Oath: Classical Version
I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfil according to my ability and judgement this oath and this covenant:
To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents and to live my life in partnership with him, and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in male lineage and to teach them this art – if they desire to learn it – without fee and covenant; to give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my sons and to the sons of him who has instructed me and to pupils who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, but no one else.
I will apply diatectic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgement; I will keep them from harm and injustice.
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.
I will not use the knife, not even on suffers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work.
Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves.
What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself, holding such things shameful to be spoken about.
If I fulfill this oath and do not violet it, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and art, being honored with fame among all men for all time to come; if I transgress it and swear falsely, may the opposite of all this be my lot.
- Translation from the Greek by Ludwig Edelstein. From The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation, by Ludwig Edelstein. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1943.
Hippocratic Oath: Modern Version
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgement, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not”, nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. 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 fragility. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems if I am to care adequately for the sick.
I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.
- Written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, and Used in many medical schools today.