Examining ancient healers in ‘The Invention of Medicine: From Homer to Hippocrates’

Raquel Aparicio for The Boston Globe

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

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