Should physicians treat their enemies?

girodet By Helen King


There are a lot of mistaken ideas about the ‘Hippocratic oath'; for   example, that it was written by the real Hippocrates (deeply unlikely – probably written way after his supposed lifetime); that it bans abortion (no, it bans giving an abortive pessary to someone asking for one, so other methods could be fine, and maybe the issue here is instead that the physician should not hand over drugs to someone who may use them a long way away from proper medical supervision); that it forbids assisted suicide (no, it says you must not give a deadly drug to anyone if asked for one, which may again be about keeping control of dangerous drugs rather than handing them out); and so on. With all this concern about drugs, we do well to remember that the ancient Greek word pharmakon means both ‘healing drug’ and ‘poison’!

There are also assumptions about clauses that people think are in there, but which aren’t. Like ‘first do no harm’, which is from another ‘Hippocratic’ treatise, not this one. And all sorts of notions about the ethics of an ancient Greek physician which are not even touched upon in the oath. One of these is the reassuring idea that a good doctor will treat anyone, no matter what their race, nation or creed may be. But that’s not an ancient idea either. In fact, quite the contrary. Here’s a story that was told about Hippocrates:

Once a terrible plague was ravaging Persia, the historic enemy of the Greeks. The king of Persia, Artaxerxes, had heard that Hippocrates was the most brilliant physician in the world, so he sent an embassy to see him. When they arrived the king’s men begged him to come and help. They offered him all the silver and gold he could possibly want. But Hippocrates shook his head and said, ‘No. I have enough food, clothing, shelter and everything else I need for life, and I don’t want all that Persian opulence. I will not help those who are the enemies of the Greeks’.

In the ancient world, patriotism beat mercy hands-down.

In 1792, the artist Girodet painted the scene in which Hippocrates refuses the gifts of the king. The various Persians around Hippocrates show different expressions as the great doctor refuses to help them: angry, amazed, sad… Meanwhile Hippocrates’ foot is pushing away the pile of money on the floor. At the time this painting was done, Hippocrates’ patriotism and his disdain for wealth were right up there with his ‘scientific’ medicine as what made him so great.

What do you think? Should doctors treat anyone, regardless?



  1. TomParmenter says

    Doctors here in Boston treated victims of the Marathon bombing, then turned right around and treated the surviving bomber. They never thought to do anything else. Mercy beats patriotism.

    • Helen King says

      excellent example, Tom – we treat people and then put them on trial, rather than letting them die. I wonder whether these ancient stories also make us think about modern claims that state healthcare should not cover those whose lifestyles are responsible for their illness…?

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