Hippocrates: Life, Contributions And The Hippocratic Oath

We explain the life of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, the four humors and his oath.

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is mainly remembered for the Hippocratic oath. However, his contributions played a vital role in the development of this discipline and psychology as well.

Below we take a closer look at who Hippocrates was and what his life was like. To do this, we'll dive into his biography and contributions to medicine and psychology -including the Hippocratic oath, that continues to be a symbol of the medical profession to this day.

Who was Hippocrates?

Hippocrates lived in Greece between 460 and 377 BC. His father and grandfather were also physicians and Hippocrates himself taught the profession to his two children and son-in-law. He did the same with many students throughout his life, during which he traveled to distant lands, which spread and popularized his ideas.

Hippocrates is considered the founder (or even the "father") of modern western medicine by most experts -in this regard; his contributions are the base upon which this discipline is built.

With that being said, it is still difficult to be sure about precisely what Hippocrates wrote since the state of the historical records doesn't allow for such certainty. That's why there is sometimes talk of 'Hippocratic oaths,' 'Hippocratic works,' or 'Hippocratic Corpus,' and this wasn't necessarily created by Hippocrates alone.

In any case, he is still credited as the father of modern medicine in most of the medical treatments from this era in Greece, as well as with the pledge that continues to have relevance today.

This is probably because, before this Hippocratic tradition became popular, western medicine was primarily based on magic or mythical and religious beliefs.  This changed drastically with Hippocratic works, and therefore he is credited with the shift to medicine based on the observation of clinical symptoms and then coming to conclusions based on these using logical reasoning.

Besides, the work of the father of medicine was profoundly influenced by the philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, that lived about one hundred years before the author we're talking about now. Specifically, Hippocratic medicine is based on Pythagoras' theory of Nature, that confirmed that it was made up of four elements: water, fire, air, and earth.

In fact, there's a clear parallel between this thought and the four  humors  theory  that discusses the fluids in the human body developed by Hippocrates and his peers. According to these doctors, health depended on the balance between blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile -a balance in this respect meant the body's natural state was in check, except for environmental factors and behavior.

The Hippocratic Corpus is an extensive work attributed to Hippocrates.
The Hippocratic Corpus is an extensive work attributed to Hippocrates.

Contributions to medicine and psychology

The work of the father of medicine was fundamental in differentiating the medical field from other sciences also developed in their first stages in Ancient Greece -philosophy and theurgy being the main areas. Theurgy is a mix of 'magic' rituals exercised with the goal of invoking a divine intervention.

Hippocrates was given credit for being the first to describe the symptoms of many diseases and medical conditions, as well as creating a system for diagnostic criteria. Besides, he was the creator of relevant terms in medicine like 'convalescence' and 'paroxysm' and for categorizing chronic illnesses and acute ones.

However, much of the ideology surrounding Hippocratic medicine has been disproved by the scientific method over time, especially related to the causes of disorders. For example, hemorrhoids were supposedly caused by an 'excess of phlegm and bile' -the treatment used, however, was actually quite similar to the current one.

In psychology, the theory of the 4 humors developed by the father of medicine is considered one of the first psychological theories on personality -specifically, it's categorized in the hypotheses on human function since it attributes behavior to the relative balance between the 'four humors' of the human body.

Hippocratic oath

As with other works of Hippocrates, the Hippocratic oath continues to be relevant for medicine in the present day. Not only does this statement include the fundamentals of the medical practice, but also ethics which has guided the performance of this discipline.

Once again, this Pythagoras' influence played a huge role in this pledge. To be more specific, this philosopher's contributions led Hippocrates to consider solidarity, privacy, justice, and respect for authority figures, on a deeper level.

This is one of the best-known medical texts from Ancient Greece. In alignment with the traditions and magical-religious ideologies of the period, the Hippocratic oath invites new doctors to swear that they will meet the ethical standards before several healing gods.

On the other hand, the Hippocratic oath creates strong ties between students and doctors and the community: they are recognized almost on the same level as family members. For this reason, the pledge is currently considered one of the most celebrated predecessors to the medical profession.

It is so relevant that the document has been rewritten and continuously adapted depending on the changing values of different periods. This holds especially true in western society, where Ancient Greek medicine has had a particularly strong impact on this professional endeavor.

So, the Hippocratic oath is still used today (in its original form or more modern versions) as a public oath that takes place upon graduation from medical school -however, this isn't obligatory.

At some medical schools, students recite the Hippocratic oath at graduation.
At some medical schools, students recite the Hippocratic oath at graduation.

What is the Hippocratic oath?

As we mentioned, the oath written by the father of medicine regularly undergoes revision. Following the tradition, it is part of a ritual at the start of medical school in the West. However, it still has been at the center of criticism and arguments.

This is because it contains certain concepts that are highly controversial as of late, like abortion rights or the right to make decisions about one's own health. In any case, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the Hippocratic oath is comprised of the following text:

"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 judgment, I will keep this Oath and this contract:

To hold him who taught me this art equally dear to me as my parents, to be a partner in life with him, and to fulfill his needs when required; to look upon his offspring as equals to 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 sons, and those of my teachers, and to students bound by this contract and having sworn this Oath to the law of medicine, but to no others.

I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgment, 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 a plan; 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 men or slaves.

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 partake of life fully and the practice of my art, gaining the respect of all men for all time. However, should I transgress this Oath and violate it, may the opposite be my fate."


Greek Medicine. (2017). National Library of Medicine. Retrieved November 29, 2018. Available at https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/greek/greek_oath.html

Hippocratic oath (2018). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved November 29, 2018. Available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hippocratic-oath

Jouanna, J. (1999). Hippocrates. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Yapijakis, C. (2009). Hippocrates of Kos, the father of clinical medicine, and Asclepiades of Bithynia, the father of molecular medicine. Review. In Vivo, 23(4): 507-514.