Julianne Tylko '10 Scrutinizes Ancient and Modern Ethical Codes

Julianne Tylko '10
Julianne Tylko '10
The Oath of Lasagna is not a pledge to Italian food; it is a modern-day revision of the Hippocratic Oath, an ethical code of conduct for doctors. Historians believe that the Greek physician Hippocrates, the “father of western medicine,” wrote the Oath, thereby taking medicine from a practice of superstition to one of ethical obligation and rationality. This summer, Julianne Tylko ’10 is studying the relationship between the Hippocratic Oath and modern versions like the Oath of Lasagna, devised by Dr. Louis Lasagna in 1964.

With Edward North Professor of Classics Barbara Gold, Tylko will compare ancient and modern medical practices as a way of determining how science has progressed in terms of logic and morals. Her research is funded by the Emerson Grant Foundation, which was created in 1997 to provide students with opportunities to work with faculty members researching an area of interest. 

The Hippocratic School was famous for its belief in the four “humors,” a position that was less religious than philosophical and systematic. Although the ancient Greeks and Romans developed the scientific method, there was very little experimentation and evidence to confirm scientific ideas; so, the Hippocratic School established a more firm set of guidelines, rather than leaving medicine open to arbitrary decisions and other-worldliness. It provided a basis for treatment in that when one humor was in excess, the doctor needed to counteract it with the others. The four humors, which were supposedly equal in a health person, were: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. They were associated with air, fire, earth, and water, respectively. “Humorism,” therefore, provided one of the first steps toward a more rational science. 

However, this was not the only change that Hippocrates and his Oath brought to medicine. Writer Margaret Mead said that “for the first time in our tradition there was a complete separation between killing and curing. Throughout the primitive world, the doctor and the sorcerer tended to be the same person. With the Greeks the distinction was made clear.” This ethical revolution is the second basis of Tylko’s research. What do the differences in the modern and ancient versions of the Oath tell us? Why do physicians still take it? 

Tylko has found that most the code is much looser than it was to the Greeks. “It was much more specific back then,” she said. “Now, when doctors take it, they will try to consciously abide by it if something in the Oath is really important to them, but usually it’s subconscious.” 

There are a few major differences between the ancient text and the Oath of Lasagna that Tylko will study. One of the more renowned phrases in the ancient Oath is “Above all, do no harm,” but of course, issues like abortion and euthanasia contradict this rule. Many modern interpretations challenge lines in the Hippocratic Oath that refer to them. Tylko will examine 2000 years’ worth of ethical changes like these and how they reflect the ethics of medicine in both times. 

As a double major in classics and biochemistry, Tylko is on the pre-med track and hopes to incorporate some of what she has learned when she goes to medical school after Hamilton. She believes that it is important for doctors to understand the roots of medicine, and excited to work on such a fascinating interdisciplinary project which will build a foundation for her senior thesis. She is a member of Hamilton’s Chemistry Society, Catholic Newman Council, Figure Skating and Tae Kwon Do clubs, and HAVOC.

Tylko is a graduate of the Winsor School.
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