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What Is The Hippocratic Oath?

By Antonia Čirjak February 11 2020

An oath taken by physicians and was originally written by Hippocrates in ancient Greece.
An oath taken by physicians and was originally written by Hippocrates in ancient Greece.
  • The original author of the oath is considered to be Hippocrates who lived in ancient Greece, although not all scholars agree on this.
  • Different quotes from the Hippocratic oath can be found on tombstones of many doctors throughout history.
  • The latest change made to the oath was in 2019, when the protection of individual humans and the environment were added to the document.

The Hippocratic Oath is considered to be one of the oldest binding documents. It is an oath taken by physicians and was originally written by Hippocrates in ancient Greece. The oath is still held to high regard by physicians today. It serves as a sort of moral compass. Originally the oath was performed by a new physician swearing to the gods of healing to maintain a certain level of ethical standards.

Although the oath can be considered obsolete in its original form, it is still used in a modified form today. It established a large number of important principles of medical ethics. Those principles are still extremely important today. Some of them include the principle of non-maleficence and medical confidentiality. The modified form of the oath is still used today in many countries by medical graduates as a symbolic form of initiation. 

The Early Version Of The Hippocratic Oath

The oath is a part of the Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of medical texts written by Hippocrates. Many scholars, however, do not believe the oath to be written by him; they claim it was added later by someone else. Yet, the principles found in the oath can be seen throughout the Corpus. Several important things mentioned in the early version of the oath deal with the fact that physicians should never divulge medical secrets, and never use a knife even during small procedures. It also prohibited euthanasia. Despite all this, Hippocrates contradicts these claims in the text of the Corpus itself, by proposing the usage of knives for surgical procedures. 

The oath is a part of the Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of medical texts written by Hippocrates.
The oath is a part of the Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of medical texts written by Hippocrates.

There is also a part of the oath dealing with the prohibition of abortion, although Hippocrates never thought it to be morally wrong. He described the process of abortion in detail in his text “On the Nature of the Child.” Abortion continued to be mentioned as prohibited in various versions of the oath, even some contemporary ones, although the mention of the ban is nowadays often removed. The earliest forms of the oath are known to have strong religious tones, and its importance among doctors is demonstrated in the fact that certain quotes from it appear on the tombstones of various physicians.

Modern Version Of The Hippocratic Oath

With time, many other documents dealing with ethics in medicine have been published and regularly updated. In a way, they made the Hippocratic Oath feel obsolete. Documents such as the AMA Code of Medical Ethics and the British Medical Council’s Good Medical Practice provided a more detailed and exhaustive examination of how a doctor should behave and act when dealing with patients and society in general. These codes are considered more official than the Hippocratic Oath, and a doctor that doesn’t follow them and chooses to violate them can sometimes lose their license to practice medicine. These documents are exceedingly long and detailed, so the Hippocratic Oath is still used in a modified form as a sort of guideline. 

“First do no harm.”
“First do no harm.”

The oath has been subject to a large number of changes throughout the years, the most important ones during the 20th century. Notable examples include the revisions made after World War II, when the need for the oath had arisen, due to the medical conditions and practices during the war that were in bad shape. In the 1960s, the oath was rewritten and was further separated from its religious roots and made more secular. This is the most widely used version since it places high importance on the value and respect of human life in general. Another change was made in 2019, which dealt with the need to protect the environment, as well as individual humans. 

An important and well-known phrase in the Hippocratic Oath, which can be considered the basis for medical work, is “First do no harm.” 

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