Education And Debate

Medicine as a profession: Hip, Hip, Hippocrates: extracts from The Hippocratic Doctor

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 20 December 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1669
  1. John Fabre


What do doctors know of Hippocrates? Many have seen a presumed likeness of “the father of medicine”—a sharp eyed, balding Greek in a toga, often under a tree. Some may remember taking the Hippocratic Oath, which contains the laudable injunction to “first do no harm.” (In fact, it doesn't, just as nobody says: “Play it again, Sam” in “Casablanca”.) Those who have checked the oath recently will know that it takes an unfashionable stance on abortion, euthanasia, and women in medicine.

For a man who influenced 2500 years of medical practice the historical record is very hazy. Historians have now decided that the great body of writings that bears his name is better known as the Hippocratic Corpus, having being written over at least 70 years by many different hands, none of them definitely Hippocrates'. Unsurprisingly, these multiauthor volumes have their internal inconsistencies, abrupt changes of style and tone, and incompatible world views.

But much sounds very modern, and this forms the basis of John Fabre's new book, “The Hippocratic Doctor: Ancient Lessons for the Modern World”. In writing it, Fabre found it necessary to scour virtually the entire corpus to put together Hippocratic thinking on a particular issue. He has grouped extracts from 50 treatises under eight main themes. What follows are selections from Fabre's book used to illustrate four of these themes.—Tony Delamothe, BMJ

The Hippocratic doctor

On Fractures (chapter I)—“In fact the treatment of a fractured arm is not difficult, and is almost any practitioner's job, but I have to write a good deal about it because I know practitioners who have got credit for wisdom by putting arms in positions which ought rather to have given them a name for ignorance. And many other parts of this art are judged thus: for they praise what seems outlandish before …

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