In ancient Greece, scholars and philosophers came to believe that medical practitioners in Egypt had a rule where they generally treated and observed patients in four-day increments. According to this curious ancient Greek interpretation, it was only after the four days of initial treatment had expired that the Egyptian physicians then would reassess their patient’s situation and decide if the treatment should be changed. If the medical practitioner knew the treatment was not working, he could decide to augment the prescribed treatment before the four-day period had elapsed, but this allegedly was frowned upon and could bring with it malpractice or reputational risk. This curious from-afar Greek interpretation of Egyptian medical methods was discussed and believed as true by many of the greatest ancient Greek intellectuals. The famous polymath, Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE), recorded the notion of the Egyptian four-day rule, stating “In Egypt a doctor is allowed, rightly, to depart from his treatment if the patient is not well after four days; if he does so earlier, he does it at his own risk” (Aristotle, Politics, Bekker number 1286a). Such a rule, perhaps, would cause a physician to be more careful about his first choice of treatment if he could not change it until after four days, and the wait period could also keep impatient doctors and patients from changing a slow-moving cure too early. Nevertheless, one imagines a four-day rule would be extremely dangerous for cases of dire illnesses and grave misdiagnoses. Such an approach was likely not endorsed by the burgeoning school of Hippocrates (460-375 BCE) that was growing at that time in Greece. The Hippocratic Oath, loosely attributed to ancient Hippocrates, claims, “I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous…Into whatever houses I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the sick, and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption” (Hippocratic Oath, translated by Francis Adams (c. 1849)). If a physician knew that a treatment was not working, Hippocrates and others would likely not approve of waiting four days to change the prescribed course of life-saving action.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (False Door of the Royal Sealer Neferiu, c 2150–2010 B.C., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Politics by Aristotle, translated by T. A. Sinclair and revised by T. J. Saunders. London: Penguin Classics, 1962, 1992.