Hippocrates may have worked at a temple of Asclepius. He may have claimed direct descent from Asclepius. Or, he may have just been a healer, as “Asclepiad” could have many meanings.
The only thing we know for sure is that Hippocrates became a legend. The most reliable historical record that Hippocrates did in fact exist is the following conversation of Socrates and Phaedrus, as recorded by Plato:
- Do you think it possible, then, to understand the nature of soul without knowing the nature of the universe?
- Nay, if we are to believe Hippocrates, the Asclepiad, we cannot even learn about the body unless we follow this method [of examining nature].
- Yes, my friend, and he’s right. Yet besides the doctrine of Hippocrates, we must examine our argument and see if it conforms to it.
- Observe, then, what both Hippocrates and correct argument mean by an examination of nature. Surely this is how we must inquire into the nature of anything. First, we must see whether that thing, in which we wish to be craftsmen and to be able to make others so, is simple or complex. Next, if it be simple, we must inquire how nature allows it to act, and of acting upon what; how it can be acted upon, and by what. If, on the other hand, it be complex, we must enumerate its parts, and note in the case of each what we noted in the case of the simple thing: through what natural power it acts, and upon what, or through what it is acted upon, and by what.
(translated by W.S. Jones, modernised slightly by us. From: Hippocrates Collected Works I. Hippocrates. W. H. S. Jones. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1868.
The rest may be true, or it may be rumour.
And the other things said about Hippocrates? They could be factual, but the sources are not from his generation. We don’t have the intermediate sources to verify their accuracy.
What about all the other documents attributed to Hippocrates? They may be just anonymous documents, categorized under the name of the great doctor. Modern historians now doubt that Hippocrates even wrote the oath that bears his name. Helen King from the Open University says outright that Hippocrates didn’t even write the oath.
Whether or not Hippocrates wrote the oath is immaterial. The oath that bears his name has been a standard of medical practice for centuries, and has supported our expectations on how doctors are meant to behave.
The original Hippocratic oath was an oath made to “health” and her family tree. Doctors swore by the lineage of Apollo, to the doctor Asclepius, his daughter Hygieia and [her sister] Panacea. Although, as the names have double meanings, perhaps they were making their promises to medicine, health and cures, and not to the pagan gods.
Here’s a copy of the Hippocratic oath, based on the translation by Michael North of the (U.S.) National Library of Medicine:
I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath and this contract:
To hold him who taught me this art with equal esteem as I hold my parents, to be a partner in life with my teacher, and to fulfil his needs when required; to look upon his offspring as if they were my own siblings, and to teach them this art, if they shall wish to learn it, without fee or contract; and that by the set rules, lectures, and every other mode of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the art to my own children, and those of my instructors, and to students bound by this contract and having sworn this Oath to the law of medicine, but to no one else.
I will prescribe to my patients diets which will benefit them, according to my greatest ability and judgement, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.
I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.
In purity and according to divine law will I carry out my life and my art.
I will not use the knife, even upon those suffering from stones, but I will leave this to those who are trained in this craft.
Into whatever homes I go, I will enter them for the benefit of the sick, avoiding any voluntary act of impropriety or corruption, including the seduction of women or men, whether they are free or not.
Whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether in connection with my professional practice or not, which ought not to be spoken of outside, I will keep secret, as considering all such things to be private.
So long as I maintain this Oath faithfully and without corruption, may it be granted to me to live fully and practice well, gaining the respect of all men for all time. However, should I transgress this Oath and violate it, may the opposite be my fate.
If you examine those words, you’ll find a very different idea of medicine than some hold today. But, whoever wrote it, I think the majority of us still like the Hippocratic oath.