Doctors still invoke the Hippocratic Oath, which classics scholar Robin Lane Fox refers to as “the essential ethic of Western medicine” (although, as he characteristically points out, its actual links to Hippocrates are “eminently questionable”). As his new book, “The Invention of Medicine: From Homer to Hippocrates,” makes clear, these roots run deep.
As far back as we look in Western literature, we find doctors and medicine. Medical reflections litter the writings of Herodotus and Thucydides, and in the world of Homer doctors were so prized that the Greeks’ main doctor, Machaon, is considered by the Trojans to be a high-value target. These were the professionals, the men who made the ritual propitiations, read and interpreted the signs, and even sometimes got their hands bloody with actual injuries and disorders.
And it isn’t just these characters, it’s Homer himself. Anyone who’s ever read the many action sequences in the Iliad will have a vivid recollection of how gruesomely specific the poet could be when describing the violent deaths of his characters. The author of the Iliad may not have known about germ theory, but he certainly knew all the specific ways a spear could rip out your spleen.
“‘Doctor Homer’ continues to be discovered by surgeons and pathologists,” Lane Fox writes. “They count and tabulate Homeric wounds as data (53 in heads and necks or 54 thoracic, of which 70.17 per cent are fatal …) and continue to claim Homer as a surgeon like themselves.”
“The Invention of Medicine” is in part a very erudite detective story in which the author uses the tools of archeology and philology to shed light on a “remarkable doctor and thinker” who was active around the Hellespont in the last years of the fifth century BCE, a figure whose travels and insights are reflected in some of the documents of the Hippocratic Corpus of ancient medical lore. “Among his patients, our doctor attended citizens whose names match the names of men known to have been at the very top of their local society,” Lane Fox writes. “Such people could admit him, lodge him and pay for him, although his text never mentions fees.”
But these textual investigations are likely of more interest to Lane Fox’s fellow classicists than they are to the general reader, who’ll tend to be far more absorbed in the other major narrative strand that runs through the book: the excavation of the early, groping history of medicine as a craft.
We see these beginnings reflected in little shards and moments drawn from the Epidemics, a mid-first century BCE collection of medical knowledge. We see murky mysticism doing its best to fill the role that systematic science would perform 20 centuries later; we see raw practicalities offering some definitive answers but virtually nothing in the way of comfort; we see, looking out at us everywhere from these ancient records, the cases and sometimes even the names of long-dead sufferers, and, thanks to Lane Fox’s patient scholarship, we feel like we’re visiting dozens of sickbeds and holding the hands of dozens of frightened people.
There’s Pythion of Thasos, who experienced trembling hands, followed 10 days later by sweating and vomiting, growing eventually, after 40 more days, into “putrefaction around his seat” and a discharge of some “abscession” that had been preventing him from urinating normally that whole time. There’s Darius of Persia, whom Herodotus records as having unbearable pain from a foot injury. “Long after Darius’ lifetime, and probably after Herodotus, fifth- and fourth-century Greek medical texts describe damage to this same ankle bone and advise that it should be bathed with warm water and treated by bandages and dressings,” Lane Fox writes. “Modern doctors prescribe much the same.”
A young girl suffers from “acute fieriness, burning heat” and nosebleeds for a month before recovering. A man named Pericles suffers burning fever and nosebleeds that only issue from his left nostril. A woman living in the city of Thasos, who experiences shivers and fever three days after giving birth to a daughter, is then struck with delirium, then on the 40th day experiences coughing that lasts for 20 days — then on the 80th day, with her little daughter wailing and burping in the next room, or maybe even in her arms, she dies. As Lane Fox puts it, “These patients and their distress still touch our shared humanity.”
“The Invention of Medicine” takes readers back to a world ruled by the “three great killers” — tuberculosis, malaria, and typhoid — and, in addition to its more abstruse arguments, it brings the human dimensions of that world alive. You’ll finish it with the strong urge to send your doctor a bottle of wine and a note of heartfelt thanks.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer living in Boston.
THE INVENTION OF MEDICINE: From Homer to Hippocrates
By Robin Lane Fox
Basic Books, 448 pages, $35