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  • Erklärungen zur Entstehung von Mißbildungen im physiologischen und medizinischen Schrifttum der Antike
  • Simon Byl
Christian G. Bien. Erklärungen zur Entstehung von Mißbildungen im physiologischen und medizinischen Schrifttum der Antike. Supplement 38 to Sudhoffs Archiv. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1997. 212 pp. DM 74.00; öS 540.00; Sw. Fr. 74.00 (paperbound).

This book is a thesis submitted in 1996 to the Faculty of Medicine of Eberhard-Karl-Universität of Tübingen. As the title indicates, Christian Bien has examined references to malformations in the physiological and medical literature of Greco-Roman antiquity; his specific interest was ancient discussion of the etiology of these malformations.

Bien starts by listing the numerous sources he was able to collect: Parmenides, Empedocles, Democritus, the authors of the Hippocratic Corpus, Aristotle, the pseudo-Aristotelian Physical Problems, the Definitiones medicae of pseudo-Galen, Soranos of Ephesus, and Galen. He also mentions contemporary scholars who have preceded him in this research: Erna Lesky, Markwart Michler, and (briefly) Pierre Louis.

Next is a discussion of the Greek words that indicate malformations and deformities: and the words of that family, and . Bien suggests that malformations were classified according to whether they are qualitative, quantitative, or “inverse,” and he studies the ancient definitions given by Aristotle and Galen. [End Page 484]

Bien distinguishes in the ancient literature three types of etiology of physical malformation: first, the hereditary transmission of parental malformations (more particularly in the case of optic pangenesis); second, injuries at the moment of procreation; and finally, injuries caused between conception and birth. He provides an interesting digression under the title “Die Frau—eine Missgeburt?” about a passage in Generation of Animals (IV.3.767b5-15) that has been often cited and commented upon.

In his conclusion, Bien considers the origin of the different explanations propounded for malformations, and in particular the popular beliefs found in the scientific literature. He devotes an appendix to the translation of the main passages that he has studied (pp. 163–74).

This book is noteworthy because it is original and quite exhaustive. It is surprising that this topic has attracted the attention of few historians of medicine, for malformation was the object of study not only of biologists and physicians in antiquity but also of artists (see terracotta no. D 1178 of the Louvre, from Smyrna, representing a man without a neck, for which Mirko Grmek has given the following retro-diagnosis: “This is a Hellenistic case of Klippel-Feil abnormality, that is, a hereditary fusion of the cervical vertebrae”). 1 Bien should perhaps extend his study by analyzing the reception of these explanations of the origin of monsters. 2

A word of regret about the bibliography: Bien does not seem to know the edition of Soranus of Ephesus, Maladies des femmes, I–III, by Paul Burguière, Danielle Gourevitch, and Yves Malinas (1988–94); that of Hippocrates’ Airs, eaux, lieux, edited and translated by Jacques Jouanna (1996); and finally, that of the Regimen in the CMG (1984), by Robert Joly, with my collaboration. Nevertheless, this is an excellent work.

Simon Byl
Université Libre de Bruxelles


1. Mirko D. Grmek, “Deformities of the Spine and Rheumatic Diseases in Greco-Roman Art,” in Art, History and Antiquity of Rheumatic Diseases, ed. Thierry Appelboom (Brussels: Elsevier, 1987), p. 22.

2. Cf. Pierre Darmon, Le mythe de la procréation à l’âge baroque (Paris: Seuil, 1981), pp. 103 ff.


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