Hippocrates is considered both the father of modern medicine, history’s most famous physician and – as was common in his time – a philosopher. He gained distinction for rejecting superstition in favour of scientific observation, for classifying diseases, and for creating a set of moral and professional standards for physicians. Born on the island of Cos sometime between 470 and 460 B.C., he belonged to a family that claimed descent from the mythical Aesculapius, the son of the god Apollo.

Hippocrates was a contemporary of the famous Greek historian Herodotus, and lived during an era known as the culmination of the Classical Period, during which Pericles led an Athenian democracy, Ictinus designed both the Parthenon and the Apollo temple at Bassae, and Phidias finished gold and ivory statues of Athene Parthenos and the seated Zeus.

The Greco-Roman world in which Hippocrates lived was a highly pluralistic society. Abortions were common and suicide was generally approved of. The administration of poison was part of medical practice.

There was already a long medical tradition in Greece before Hippocrates’s day. He is said to have inherited much of his thinking with regard to medicine from his predecessor, Herodicus, and is known to have enlarged his education by extensive travel. Evidence suggests he took part in efforts to check a great plague that devastated Athens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian war. He died at Larissa sometime between 380 and 360 B.C.

The works attributed to Hippocrates – some 60 treatises – are the earliest available Greek medical writings, but it is uncertain which of the works attributed to Hippocrates were actually written by him. At least five or six are, however, including his famous Oath. Those that weren’t authored by him are thought by some to be from the collection of a medical school on Cos.

The oath demonstrates that in Hippocrates’s time, physicians were already organized into a corporation or guild, with regulations for the training of disciples, an “esprit de corps,” and a professional ideal.

A saying of his that has achieved universal currency is the first of his Aphorisms: “Life is short, and the art long. The occasion fleeting, experience fallacious and judgement difficult. The physician must be prepared to do what is right himself, but also make the patient, the attendants, and externals co-operate.”

The image of a concerned and conscientious physician that accompanied Hippocrates attracted apocryphal legends about his great deeds, but also a collection of early medical writings known as the Hippocratic Corpus. These treatises were collected under Hippocrates’s name in Hellenic times.

Recent concerns about the Hippocratic Oath with regard to abortion have an early precedent. In the first century A.D., Scribonius Largus (a physician who accompanied the Emperor Claudius to Britain) and Soranus (a Greek physician in Rome) considered Hippocrates’s provision that forbade giving a woman an abortive pessary.

Scribonius Largus cited the Hippocratic principle that medicine is the art of healing, not harming, to support his position in favour of the prohibition of all abortions. Soranus, meanwhile, decided that the Oath prohibited only abortive pessaries and that other abortions were permitted if the life of the mother was in danger. He added, however, that he would never prescribe an abortive agent to preserve a woman’s beauty or to cover up her adultery.

Elsehwere, two writers on embryology in the Hippocratic Corpus (in the treatises Fleshes and Nature of the Child) describe aborted unborn children six and seven days old, and acknowledge that they witnessed or caused the abortions that produced them.

The Hippocratic writings fell from historical sight until the 10th century A.D., when they re-emerged in the precepts of the medical schools of Salerno and Montpellier. They then attracted enough interest and were copied in sufficient numbers to survive into the Renaissance. Once the Corpus was translated into Latin during the early 16th century, the prestige of Hippocrates and interest in his writings escalated rapidly throughout Europe, as physicians combed the Corpus in search of medical precedents.