By Thulashigan Sreeharan, Edited by Nipuni Hapangama
On Father’s Day this year, the medical profession looked back at its estranged relationship with long-deceased dad Hippocrates (circa 460-375 B.C.). Little is known about the founding father of medicine, but doctors are convinced he was a good dude. After all, he sowed the seed for modern medicine during a time when worshipping snakes and reading dreams were popular treatments. He taught budding doctors their first words through his Oath and was a role model for the humane, inquisitive physician. However, beneath all this fairy floss is the short end of a stick caused by our hypocritical fervour for all things Hippocratic.
When medicine was young, Hippocrates claimed he could cure anything by balancing the four humours: blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile. Naïvely (and rather religiously) we followed this advice for the next two-thousand years. We even adopted some of his wackier theories, like the “wandering womb”- when he compelled his female friends to be sexually active or risk being hysteric, because their womb would drift around the body in an attempt to satisfy its ‘cravings’ for warmth and moisture. We also thought he did not support euthanasia or abortion, but that might be a rumour spread by medicine’s brother from the Middle Ages, Christianity.
However, in his treatise, Hippocrates urges doctors to avoid blindly following tradition, which is one of the more relevant pieces of advice that has fallen on deaf ears with modern physicians. His Oath fails to acknowledge issues of the 21st century, such as the privatisation of healthcare, conflicts of interest among doctors, rising social inequality, the need to respect patient autonomy and research ethics. Yet, we continue to swear by the same pledge under gods “Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea” who hold the same relevance today as wandering wombs.
Maybe we should accept that however well-intentioned they may be, fathers are sometimes old-fashioned, and it is time for doctors to provide a much-needed update to the principles of their profession.
Thanks for reading, check these links for more detail on ancient medicine and Hippocrates: