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Studies in Law and Medicine

In Search of the Hippocratic Tradition

Americans United for Life published “Studies in Law and Medicine” in the 1970s and 1980s, spotlighting issues pertaining to the human right to life across the bioethics spectrum. As Americans United for Life celebrates our 50th anniversary, we are making these issues available for the first time since their print publication.

In Search of the Hippocratic Tradition by Herbert Ratner, M.D.

Through the whole history of medicine there runs, like a bright thread, a more or less permanent struggle between two principle tendencies—empiricism and rationalism. The former, or empirical trend, lays its emphasis on helping and the cure of the sick. The latter, or rationalistic trend, lays its main emphasis on “scientific” explanations for the causes of disease and the methods of treatment. Today we are living once more in such an era of extreme intolerant rationalism. We can see the displacement of simple, valuable—nay, fundamental and indispensable—traditional methods of healing in favor of a more sophisticated, theorizing, experimental and technical trend, guided by an exaggerated application of such auxiliary sciences as physics, chemistry, and physiology. This trend has even gone so far that established clinical experience has been replaced by the neo-rationalism of natural science. 

Our insensitivity to tradition and its wisdom is not without effect. It gives us modern man, who goes through life with fear of death. What wisdom did the father of medicine possess that we lack? First, the practice of medicine can never be a science. Medicine is an art, having a good to achieve, not a truth to possess. The final goal is the cure, not the diagnosis. New knowledge is never worth the price of a life. Second, the art of medicine cooperates with and imitates nature. Hippocrates makes clear that sometimes the best treatment is to do nothing, rather than to do something only to generate profit. Third, a patient cannot be known adequately apart from his or her environment. There are many diseases in which one house call is frequently worth more diagnostically than two weeks at a leading medical center. Fourth, the positive production of optimum health, not the cultivation of the hypochondriacal state, is the ultimate goal in medicine. Fifth, health education is ordered toward health and not toward morbid preoccupation with disease. Sixth, the proper order of treatment is regimen first, then medication and lastly, surgery. Seventh, we treat an individual, not a universal. Eighth, the true physician will suffer from the ignorance and stylish therapies of others.  

A doctor cannot be an island.  It is the Oath—a code of ethics which holds steadfast to a moral obligation in conformity with the definitive nature of a learned profession (here medicine)—which is the prime protection of the purity of the medical art. By imposing on its members an obligation to remain resolute against the assault of a sick society, the Oath, properly constituted, becomes the one hope of preserving the un confused role of the physician as healer.