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23/06/2017
BBC Radio 4

    In Our Time newsletter: The Hippocratic Oath

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    Ed's note: From this week we'll be running the In Our Time newsletter weekly on the Radio 4 blog. You can hear this episode (and the huge archive of previous episodes) on the In Our Time website - PM.

    There are usually two sorts of sleep I have on the night before In Our Time: one is bad, the second is worse.

    But before the first edition of a new season of In Our Time I have a very special sleep. It's called worst, or none. What keeps me going is a ridiculous aim. It could be called the Holy Grail. That is, I keep saying to myself all I have to do tomorrow is to be capable between 9:02 and 9:44am. I don't know why that keeps me going but somehow it does.

    I had an appalling night's sleep. Turned up creaking and internally (stoic to the last) groaning, but was fed copious cups of tea by Ingrid. There were even grapes on offer this morning, which seemed to confirm the idea that I ought to be in hospital, and then away we went.

    They were such a merry crew. It's difficult to think of a more cheerful Emeritus Professor than Vivian Nutton, or a more enjoyable companion in discussion than Helen King, or anyone as hung about with the accoutrements of academic achievement than Peter Pormann. He has published on medicine and philosophy in Late Antique Alexandria, on Greek-Syriac-Arabic translation technique, on the history of mental illness in tenth-century Baghdad, and so it goes.

    Afterwards what he really wanted to discuss was Star Trek.

    Yes. Star Trek. He could do a Mastermind on Star Trek and I'm thinking of suggesting him to John Humphrys. Even worse (or even better, depending on your starting point), Helen King is of the same ilk. Vivian Nutton, the Emeritus, was not so very far behind.

    Star Trek, Peter informed us, had two episodes about the Hippocratic Oath. Galen, the great Greek-born Roman physician, featured in Star Trek. Peter was semi-apologetic as the discussion continued, but unable to keep trouncing everybody with the most recondite facts about it.

    Vivian restored a little order to the post-programme conversation by saying that no other ancient document is really used today. Not one is tested as much in the modern age as it was two and a half thousand or two thousand years ago.

    It seems to have come back into fashion in the last thirty years to be introduced into ceremonies while students swear an oath of their allegiance. Helen suggested it was partly because of the demand or new affection of students for ceremonies at the end of their university career. In her course at university she starts off with the Hippocratic Oath itself. It has the wonderful merit of being short, pithy and extraordinarily relevant. Euthanasia? Abortion? The conduct of doctors? Confidentiality of patients? There it was, at least two thousand years ago, perhaps even two and a half thousand years ago. I feel that Hippocrates seared himself onto the consciousness of the ancient world so much that he must have produced more than he can be proved to have produced.

    Perhaps an urn will be discovered under some JCB digging away in Kos, and you'll pull out a bit of papyrus and it will say 'These are the works of Hippocrates and you're all wrong in thinking he was lots of other people as well'.

    Peter Pormann was, in the programme but also after the programme, very determined to say that he thought the Islamic medical translations were totally part of the Western response and continuation of the work of Hippocrates, not something aside and different, as has been thought for so long.

    There were twenty commentaries on the aphorisms, for example, in Arabic between the twelfth and the sixteenth century. It was only out-commentaried on by the Bible. I began to think in the end that every generation and century had their own Hippocrates. But that is a measure of the man's charisma and irradiance.

    I'm afraid there was not much wandering about. Back to the offices in Soho where we're hammering out timetables for these programmes we're doing on class and culture. The sun beckoned, the skies were blue, but I'm staying resolutely indoors. There is something, I conclude on certain afternoons, quite special about looking at the weather from inside.

    Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time

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