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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76.2 (2002) 352-353

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Book Review

Asclepius, the God of Medicine

Gerald D. Hart. Asclepius, the God of Medicine. London: Royal Society of Medicine Press, 2000. xx + 262 pp. Ill. £17.50 (paperbound, 1-85315-409-1).

Gerald D. Hart is a retired hematologist and an amateur numismatist whose purpose in this volume is "to popularize Asclepius and interpret the present-day use of his staff and serpent symbol by various disciplines of the healthcare team" (p. xvii). Hart makes no claim to originality. He largely reproduces the views of Emma Edelstein and Ludwig Edelstein in their magnum opus, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies (1945; reprinted 1998). Hart adopts the euhemerist view that Asclepius evolved from a historical figure into a god: on the evidence of his mention in Homer's Iliad, he believes that Asclepius was a physician who lived before the end of the eighth century B.C. and whose accomplishments led first to heroic status and later to deification. Here as elsewhere, Hart tends (like the Edelsteins) toward rationalistic explanations. Medical training is often helpful for making sense of ancient healing practices, but it does not take the place of a thorough knowledge of the cultural context in which they develop. One of many examples in this regard is Hart's failure to understand the concept of miasma (ritual pollution) as the basis of the Greek exclusion from sacred precincts of those giving birth or dying (p. 60). And, like the Edelsteins, Hart tends to idealize the temple-healing of Asclepius.

Given that the book is largely derivative, professional historians cannot look for the historical rigor that they would normally expect of a historical monograph that deals with so controversial a figure as Asclepius. Hart often relies on secondary sources for matters of fact, and thereby takes over unexamined their [End Page 352] interpretation of the evidence. Thus he seems to be unfamiliar with the historiographic problems surrounding Hippocrates, assuming that the Father of Medicine was the figure described by later legend (pp. 37-38). Other criticisms might be made of Hart's approach. He makes frequent comparisons between modern medicine, on the one hand, and ancient medical practices or the healing cult of Asclepius, on the other. Thus he calls the family of Asclepius "the divine healthcare team" (p. 33). Priests of asclepieia administered "mind-therapy" (p. 71), as well as music and occupational therapy, to pilgrims who sought healing. The grant of immunities to physicians was an early form of socialized medicine (p. 121). The interchange of ideas among physicians at asclepieia was a form of "continuing medical education" (p. 137).

Assuming presentist and essentialist categories, Hart views modern medicine as a continuation of ancient methods that did not differ markedly from the presuppositions that undergird modern practice. Thus he considers Soranus's gynecological works "surprisingly modern texts" (p. 159), while alleging that the Hippocratic "theory on the pathogenesis of disease summarizes our present knowledge on the onset of infection" (p. 139). Particularly questionable are assertions that ancient physicians in many cases prescribed what we now know to be medically efficacious treatment (pp. 85 ff.). Nor does Hart avoid that besetting sin of medical historians, retrospective diagnosis (see, e.g., p. 157).

The strength of the volume lies in the attention that the author gives to the numismatic evidence for the cult of Asclepius. Of 513 sites at which the god was worshipped, 267 were connected with coins, and 211 sites are known only through numismatic evidence. This is an area that was conspicuously overlooked by the Edelsteins (who focused on literary rather than on archaeological or numismatic evidence), and Hart provides a popular introduction to the subject illuminated by many coin illustrations. While the professional historian will find much to criticize in this volume, the attention given to numismatic and archaeological evidence (especially from Roman Britain) sheds light on the cult of Asclepius that is missing from the Edelsteins' study.


Gary B. Ferngren
Oregon State University