History and Development of Medical Ethics In the West

  • Georgina D. CampeliaEmail author
  • Denise M. Dudzinski


This chapter will chart some of the history of medical ethics in the West, beginning before the term was coined in 1803 by Thomas Percival and ending with today’s notion of bioethics. This chapter will address some of the key conflicts and historical shifts that transformed medical ethics from an unnamed and amorphous idea to a distinctive field of study informing patient care. The path is complex with medical advances and pitfalls over the centuries that both compel and inhibit progress. With each historical shift, distinguishing features arise. Medical ethics first takes shape in oaths of faith and loyalty, where the virtues and moral obligations of physicians were grounded in the dictates of the gods, the state, the crown, and/or the church. Over the course of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, these oaths come to be defined by an emerging practice of medicine. As such, the power of the oaths comes from the professional contract rather than those higher authorities. Even so, little has changed in the named virtues (fidelity, beneficence, compassion, integrity), and their moral standing continued to be founded on social consensus rather than moral argument. Finally, through the struggles and failures of scientific progress in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there is an urgent demand for the moral reasoning and rigorous justification that comes to define bioethics as we know it today.


Medical ethics Bioethics History Moral reasoning 


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Bioethics & HumanitiesUniversity of Washington School of Medicine, & UW Medicine Ethics Consultation ServiceSeattleUSA

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