Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78.2 (2004) 465-466
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This is a well-written, brief summary of classical medicine that shows "some of the similarities and the differences between medicine in ancient and modern societies" (p. viii). Although writing here for the nonspecialist, Helen King is a true scholar of the subject and, as one would expect, offers insight about her ancient medicine. After seven short chapters (with a bonus chapter 8 on "After Ancient Medicine"), she concludes that the similarities between medicine of the two eras include (1) recognition that diseases can come from outside (viz. our germ theory) or from inside the body (viz. their humoral imbalance, our "protein or fibre"); (2) consideration of the environment as a factor in health and disease; (3) belief in the importance of learned medical experts (whom King calls doctors throughout)—for example: Herophilus's assertion that a drug is nothing without the person who knows how to use it correctly; (4) emphasis on the importance of anatomy (although classical medicine did not accept the premise unanimously).
In the first chapter King defines the break between ancient medicine, with its divine origin of disease and its mixture of metaphysical and physical therapies, and the later Greek medicine, which moves from temple medicine to the secular "Hippocratic" physicians, with their disdain for magic and embrace of reason. King regards as an important distinction between ancient and classical medicine the notion that doctors needed to know "'the whole' before treating the patient" (p. 8). The Hippocratic physicians were free from superstition, regarded the patient as part of the environment, were "honest about its [medicine's] failures" (p. 17), and were dedicated in concern for the patient. King leaves open the questions of whether the genuine "Hippocrates" can be found (i.e., what works may have been written by Hippocrates the person), and whether the Oath was ever taken as an oath (pp. 15, 33, 44). On the latter she does not object to later Roman claims about Greek physicians and the Oath.
The chapter on the plague of Athens was disappointing to this reviewer, because King concludes that Thucydides was writing simply literature. She avoids altogether a summary of modern scholarship in its lively attempts to identify the infection (such as Toxic Shock Syndrome, influenza, typhus, and Rift Valley Fever). Students who rely on King's account will not understand the importance of the perspective for medicine: "[Thucydides'] Athenian plague, is not, however, 'medical' but 'moral' and 'historical'" (p. 25).
All of Alexandrian medicine, with its revolutions in anatomy and physiology, is related in four and one-half pages of text. King postulates that the Museum [End Page 465] researchers may have employed the cadavers of Egyptians rather than Greeks; this ethnic restriction she compares to Nazi experimentation (p. 31). Essentially two chapters relate Roman medicine and Greek medicine during the Roman hegemony. In representing Roman medicine, King relies too much on attitudes generalized from Pliny's idiosyncratic views. Her propensity to qualification may confuse the student, such as when she says that Archagathus, the first Greek physician in Rome, "likely . . . was invited by the state," and shortly thereafter that he "may have come on his own initiative" (p. 32). Galen is the subject of a chapter review. Galen "is so good that his powers seem almost supernatural," King says (p. 38), in an example of her lively style. Healing was to Galen the organization of experience derived from rationalizing general principles, and then applying those axioms to the patient. Chapter 7 concerns, in general, diet, drugs, healing women, efficacy, and the placebo effect. Notably absent in any detail are surgery and evidence derived from archaeological evidence. King misses an opportunity to draw a similarity between classical and modern medicine when she says that classical physicians had difficulty distinguishing a drug from a food, for so do we. The last...