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Students, surgeons, and charlatans

Medical education through the ages

  • By: Toby Pitts-Tucker
  • Published: 06 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1136/sbmj.e6954
  • Cite this as: Student BMJ 2012;20:e6954

Medicine was not always taught as it is today. Medical curriculums, examinations, and even formal institutions are a surprisingly modern phenomenon. Medical teaching from ancient Greece to the middle ages was variable and often unwaveringly faithful to certain medical texts. This had a profound impact on who studied medicine and the way the medical profession evolved.

The towering figure of medicine in ancient Greece was Hippocrates (c 460 BC to c 370 BC), who came from a family of doctors who claimed to trace their ancestry back to the god of medicine, Asclepius. The Hippocratic oath, which might not have been written by Hippocrates, suggests the existence of a close knit medical community at this time, and a strong ethical code of regulation.

However, medical teaching in Greece remained haphazard and disorganised. “There were no schools of medicine, no medical councils, no certificates,” Helen King, professor of Classical Studies at

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