Theoretical pronouncements notwithstanding, the Hippocratic physician was first and foremost a craftsman plying his trade. 1 He, and it was almost always he, might work from his own house, which thus served as his surgery or 'medical workshop', and remain largely within his own community, or he might, like Homer's craftsman-doctor, travel in search of patients. 2 He might practise alone, or in company with others, travelling around familiar territory or wandering further afield as a total stranger. 3 With one exception, his income depended on finding patients prepared to pay for his services, supplemented by whatever else he might gain from his property or estates, if he had any. That exception was some form of state service, whether as a doctor with the army or navy on campaign or as a so-called 'public doctor'. If Herodotus is to be believed, there was already a system of public doctors in Aegina and Athens by the late sixth century, for Democedes held such a post in both cities. 4 But there is then a gap in the historical record of a century or so, and the most detailed evidence does not appear until Hellenistic times. To judge from this later information, the presence of a public doctor was no welfare state avant la lettre. Certain physicians, in Athens chosen by the assembly, received what amounted to a retaining fee to reside in the community and be on hand to treat the citizens. 5 Whether their contract compelled them to offer treatment for nothing is a vexed question: their tombstones and the honorary decrees that record their distinguished service show that they did so at times, but it is more likely that free treatment was left to the doctors' own discretion than that it was legally imposed on them. 6 Social pressures in a small community might compel a doctor to treat the poorest citizens for nothing, but he is unlikely to have been willing to do the same always for the rich, or for non-citizens. Nor is there any need to assume that he had in the fifth century also the contractual duty of assisting at inquests or other official occasions on which a doctor might be called for (situations known from Graeco-Roman Egypt), or that the role of an expert witness in court was confined to public doctors. 7
State service, however, was an option for only a small number of physicians; the others, along with midwives, bone-setters, herbalists and the like, had to rely on what they could gain by their own efforts. They faced competition, as
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Publication information: Book title: Ancient Medicine. Contributors: Vivian Nutton - Author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 2004. Page number: 87.
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