Friday, September 26, 2008

Asklepios: Ancient Model of Medical Caring

My dear friend Punna posted this interesting piece of mythology connected to medicine.

Society's demands of integrity, sacrifice, and compassion from its doctors have roots in the traditions of ancient Greece. Asklepios exemplified the ideal physician and the pitfalls he or she may face.
"I swear by Apollo Physician, Asklepios, Hygiea, Panacea and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses. ... Into whatever houses I may enter, I will come for the benefit of the sick."
Hippocratic Oath, circa 400 BC

Although physician roles and status have changed substantially in the last 3000 years, the public's demand for integrity, sacrifice, and compassion has remained constant.

Throughout Greek literature Asklepios performs no heroic feats other than healing. Unlike other Greek heroes who gain their fame through conquest, Asklepios has to work for a living. Whenever Asklepios is mentioned, his honorific is as "a great joy to men, a soother of cruel pangs" or as a "gentle craftsman" brought to "heal mortal men of painful maladies".

Asklepios was the illegitimate son of the God Apollo and the human Coronis. Apollo loved her and at once consorted with her, but she, in accordance with her father's judgement, chose Ischys and married him. Apollo cursed the raven that brought the news and made it black instead of white, and in his anger he killed Coronis. As she lay dying, he removed the baby from the womb of the burning Coronis and brought it to Chiron the Centaur, by whom he was brought up and taught the arts of healing. Asklepios born by cesarean section out of the womb of his dying mother, symbolizes by his very life the ability of the physician to bring life out of death.

Asklepios refines the art of medicine to the degree that he not only prevented some from dying, but even raised up the dead. Zeus, fearing that men might acquire the healing art from him and so come to the rescue of each other then killed Asklepios with a thunderbolt because he restored the dead to life against the order of the gods and nature.

Zeus resented Asklepios because Asklepios helped mortals in matters of life and death, hence elevating the human doctors, making them the equals of gods and ultimately threatening the gods' power. What made Asklepios heroic and gave his doctor descendents honour was that Asklepios stood up for mankind, even risking death to alleviate the suffering of others.

Asklepios was killed because he "was extending his competence into a forbidden field—life-saving service to one whose life was forfeit to the gods." No one dared assist for fear of incurring the wrath of the gods. The ancient Greeks considered Asklepios as the foremost physician because he alone dared to care for the outcast, to succor anyone suffering, regardless of the consequences. This teaches us his modern descendents to assist the suffering, regardless of the sufferer's station and the personal risk the doctor might incur.

His two daughters, Hygiea and Panacea represents the two arms of medicine; Preventive and Curative. Hygiea from which we derive the word "Hygiene" is the giver and preserver of health; and Panacea represented the remedies which brought those suffering comfort. The crest of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow for example has the staff and serpent to represent Asklepios, and two ladies representing his two daughters.

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