Hippocrates of Cos (c. 460 BC – c. 370 BC) was an ancient Greek physician of the Age of Pericles (Classical Athens), and is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine. He is referred to as the father of Western medicine in recognition of his lasting contributions to the field as the founder of the Hippocratic School.
Except for the Bible, no document and no author from Antiquity commands the authority in the twenty-first century of Hippocrates of Cos and the Hippocratic Oath. They are regularly cited in both learned journals and the popular press as the standard of ethical conduct to which all practising physicians should adhere.
In Western medicine, the name of Hippocrates has always stood for an ideal. Until comparatively recently in the history of Western medical thought, his views - that is, the views of works that passed for his - were accepted as authoritative on all kinds of medical problems, and medical students read their Hippocrates not out of piety but as an essential part of their training as doctors.
Hippocrates apparently remained on the island for his education as a youth, became a physician, and left Cos at about the age of thirty. To this day there exists a huge tree, called the "Tree of Hippocrates," in the market square of the largest city on Cos. ... Legend has it that under this tree the medical students of Hippocrates sat at the feet of their master.
[Hippocrates] began his study of medicine under the direction of his father, Heracleides, who was a descendant of a group of preist-physicians known as Asclepiads. This name came from the first important physician of the early Greek people, Asclepius, who was worshiped as the god of healing. Thus, it is apparent that long before Hippocrates came on the scene, medicine was very closely related to religion and superstition.
This is to say that the boundary between medicine and pharmacy, as between medicine and poison, was vague - so vague, in fact, that in the absence of any legislation regulating the sale of drugs, a commerce had developed by Hippocrates' time in more or less toxic products that were used for more or less honest purposes. It was against such a background that the absolute prohibition of the oath against poison to a patient or a third party acquired its full force and point.
By today's standards, Hippocrates was a profoundly abnormal physician. Medicine's founding father routinely tasted his patients' urine, sampled their pus and earwax, and smelled and scrutinized their stool. . . . He absorbed everything, examining exhaustively and documenting meticulously.
In the 'Politics', [Aristotle] cites Hippocrates, in passing, as an example of a man who was great by reason of his science rather than of his size: "One would pronounce Hippocrates to be greater, not as a human being but as a physician, that someone who surpassed him in bodily size."
Nobody has ever uttered a more realistic appraisal of the challenges facing a physician-scientist in the face of the complexity of nature than Hippocrates in his most famous aphorism: "Life is short, art is long, opportunity fleeting, experience misleading, judgment difficult." He must have been achingly aware of those limits throughout his life, yet he never gave up his belief that through scrupulous observation and keen analysis he and physicians to come would wrest from nature an understanding of the true causes and natures of disease, and use that knowledge to heal.
In 400 B.C., when Hippocrates led the medical academy at Cos, documenting his patient encounters, teaching his students the Art of medicine (he capitalized the A), and writing what would become known as the 'Hippocratic Corpus', he was unaware that he was establishing Western medical theory for the next two-plus millennia.
The most dramatic expression of the ethical focus of [Hippocrates'] reaching is found in the famous Hippocratic Oath, versions of which many medical students still swear to today. Although it's twenty-four hundred years old, the oath is the direct source of the ethical and personal care that continue to distinguish physicians and the medical profession at their best.