Many people think the Hippocratic Oath says, succinctly: “First do no harm” – but it appears that it’s nothing like as straightforward as that, and certainly not as short! And of course there’s the problem of translation: not everything can be translated exactly.

Hippocrates is rumoured to have been born around 460 BC ( although there are certain to be as many opinions about this as there are historians). We can all agree it was a long, long time ago, and Hippocrates could not have imagined the way science – and therefore the practice of medicine – has evolved. Even if he was in the habit of taking hallucinogenics, he probably wouldn’t have imagined a patient hooked up to machines and monitors providing every possible kind of life support to the person who would otherwise be dead, or as good as.

As far as I know, the difference between brain death and total no-question-about-it death did not exist, or at the very least, was not imaginable.

The way medicine is practised today can be summarized as

Stop them from dying at all costs.” (So it’s fine if they subsist, bedridden, indefinitely, even if that means round-the-clock care. At least they’re not dead!) Can anyone honestly say they prefer this fate to not existing at all?

In American medical schools the following “modern version” is mostly used, and it appears to follow the spirit of the original. In the French-speaking world, doctors would do well to reflect on this sentence in particular:

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being …

And while they’re at it, they might consider this one too:

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.

Hippocratic Oath, Modern Version

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, 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 which 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 frailty. 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.


This page from Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries and University Museums: http://guides.library.jhu.edu/c.php?g=202502&p=1335759, accessed 6 May 2017. This source uses the words of Louis C. Lasagna, and was written in 1964. The page in question also credits Tim Ruggles, Dalhousie University for granting his permission to use it.

You can read more about Louis Lasagna on River Campus Libraries’ page: http://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/3330, accessed 6 May 2017, which also contains a very thorough bibliography of his writings.

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