Hippocrates wrote the Hippocratic Oath.
The Hippocratic Oath is a very short, ancient medical text that is part of a collection of works that has traditionally been assigned to the authorship of one man: Hippocrates of Cos. This collection, known as the Hippocratic Corpus, contains works written over hundreds of years, and it is widely accepted that Hippocrates could not have been the author to all of them; not least because they do not share a single approach to medicine, or a specific therapeutic model.
Even the corpus, as it is perceived today, is not set in stone. The number of treatises fluctuates between anywhere from about 50, to over 70. The reason for this is in part because it is not clear whether some texts were written as standalone works, or were originally part of another one. In fact, we know from the work of the Roman medical writer Galen that even by his period, in the second century AD, people were questioning the authenticity of texts assigned to Hippocrates. In his work On My Own Books he says (Ed. I. Mueller, Scripta Minora II, p. 113, 13-18):
Commentary on The Nature of Man: two books; after they had been written, and after hearing that some people criticised this work (sc. The Nature of Man) as not being authentic, I wrote another three under the following title: “That Hippocrates in his other writings clearly has the same opinion as in The Nature of Man.”
Really, we do not know of a single text that was written by Hippocrates. If he wrote any of those associated with him, he chose to do so anonymously. Scholars have done some amazing work to link the historic Hippocrates with certain texts assigned to his name, but the Oath is not one of them.
While it is impossible to prove the negative, there are some inconsistencies between the tiny amount of information given to us by Hippocrates’ contemporaries, and what the Oath actually has written within it. The most obvious concerns payment. The Oath is clear, payment should not be taken by a medical teacher:
[T]each them this art, if they want to learn it, without fee or indenture.
Yet Plato suggests that one would expect to pay the historic Hippocrates (Protagoras, 311b-c):
Suppose, for example, you had taken it into your head to call on your namesake Hippocrates of Cos, the Asclepiad, and pay him money as your personal fee, and suppose someone asked you — Tell me, Hippocrates, in purposing to pay a fee to Hippocrates, what do you consider him to be? How would you answer that?
A doctor, I would say.
And what would you intend to become?
A doctor, he replied.
Now, it is of course possible that Plato here is wrong, or that he is simply constructing his own version of Hippocrates to suit his own ends, but as a contemporary source he should not be dismissed too easily.
As for the Oath itself, it is a document that outlines perceived obligations for medical practitioners and it sets out certain moral parameters within which a physician should practice. It also outlines the responsibilities of the medical teacher to their students. Some scholars argue that the original Oath dates to approximately 400 BC, but the Oath has a long history of being edited and modified to suit the needs and wants of the person using it.
For instance, the Oath begins with the invocation of various Greek gods. Understandably such an act was deemed inappropriate by Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars, who replaced these with the relevant names used for their own god. So the notion that the Oath was written in 400 BC, and that the same Oath is used to this day, is simply not true. Not only has the Oath been changed along the way, but most doctors have not and indeed do not take it.
Over time, ideas have become attached and associated with the Oath, perhaps most famously the tenet: “First, do no harm.” This phrase is often used as a paraphrase for the Oath itself, and yet it does not appear in the actual text. We can find sentences that perhaps look similar, but the idea of ‘do no harm’ being a rule that appears on a list can be found in a separate text in the Hippocratic Corpus (Epidemics 1.11):
As for diseases, make a habit of two things – to help, or at least to do no harm.
Although it should be noted that ‘do no harm’ appears second, after helping.
So, considering the anonymity of the text, the inconsistencies surrounding the contemporary evidence of Hippocrates, the evolution of the Oath over time, and the problematic nature of the entire Hippocratic Corpus (especially regarding authorship), we have deemed this false. Not because it is proven to be wrong, but because the onus is on someone to actually prove that Hippocrates did write it.
- Jacques Jouanna, Greek Medicine from Hippocrates to Galen: Selected Papers (2012).
- Ludwig Edelstein, The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation,and Interpretation (1943).
- Paul J. Carrick, Medical Ethics in the Ancient World (2001).
- Helen King, “Hippocrates didn’t write the oath, so why is he the father of medicine?”, The Conversation (2014).
- Helen King, Hippocrates Now: The Father of Medicine in the Internet Age (2020).