- Hippocrates Now: The “Father of Medicine” in the Internet Age by Helen King
This is an unusual book deploying an unusual skill set, equally at home in a library and online. It is stated at the outset that the “main resource has been the internet, supplemented by the Wellcome Collection in London”; for some books “second-hand copies sourced online” proved more economical than travel to libraries (p. 14). An admirably lucid short introduction (pp. 1–16) sets out the subject and scope of the work (broadly, the reception of Hippocrates) and outlines the intended approach (to examine knowledge or purported knowledge in past and present).
Chapter 1, “What We Know about Hippocrates” (p. 17), consists arrestingly of just twenty-four words: “Hippocrates lived in classical Greece and was associated with the island of Cos. He gained a reputation as a writer and a medical doctor”; chapter. 2, “What We Thought We Knew” (pp. 19–41), and with it chapter 3, “Sabotaging the Story: What Hippocrates Didn’t Write” (pp. 43–66), raise fundamental questions of Hippocratic authorship and the nature of the corpus known as “Hippocratic.” There is a certain dissonance between these three chapters, essentially derivative in content, based on current scholarly consensus, and the more novel thrust of the ensuing chapters addressing material drawn from the internet. Chapter 4, “Needing a Bit of Information: Hippocrates in the News” (pp. 67–94), examines current news stories with particular reference to medical ethics and the putative importance of the oath. Chapter 5, “Hippocrates in Quotes” (pp. 95–110), explores sayings commonly attributed to Hippocrates, but often wrongly, or out of context, or with slanted interpretations. Chapter 6, “Let Food Be Thy Medicine” (pp. 111–32), examines a salient instance of the use and misuse of one such saying. Chapter 7, “The Holistic Hippocrates: Treating the Patient, Not Just the Disease” (pp. 133–53) turns to the appropriation by holistic medicine of supposed Hippocratic principles. A final section, “Conclusion: Strange Remedies” (pp. 155–59), is a meditation on Hippocrates as an ideal, with a perennial appeal, that paradoxically rests on its intrinsic fluidity. [End Page 115]
It was ambitious to begin the book with “the question of what, if anything, Hippocrates wrote” (p. 21). The topic has been and remains fundamental (reflected in the theme of the next International Hippocratic Colloquium, scheduled for Munich, October 2021: “The Hippocratic Corpus—Unity in Diversity?”). King’s treatment is worthy but marred by oversimplification. In particular the recurrent description of the corpus as a “collection of . . . treatises” (p. 19 initially; p. 31 on their number) misleadingly lumps together texts with literary pretensions and compilations of various kinds (p. 25, term “treatises” misapplied to Coan Prognoses and Epidemics). But there is commendable awareness of “lost texts and oral traditions” (p. 35); also the letters and apocrypha get some passing attention (pp. 36 and 39). Cos and Cnidos are present (p. 29, etc.) but not Italy and Sicily, or Thracian Abdera, and questions of scientific priority are ignored.
The rest of the book, on contemporary uses of Hippocrates, does not disappoint. The content of Wikipedia is laid bare and found wanting. Myths both about events in Hippocrates’s life and about elements in his work are exposed. The extraordinary power of selective repetition in online presentation, as sites uncritically copy sites, is illumined. We are made uncomfortably aware that all this is just the “tip of a very large iceberg” (p. 131). The style is engaging and accessible, sometimes colloquial. The notes are replete with subsidiary information and supplementary bibliographical material. The bibliography itself is full and helpful. Greek makes a sporadic appearance (as in a Galenic citation, p. 119). There are some well-judged portraits of Hippocrates (pp. 10–11), but the cover image of Hippocrates with smartphone in hand is not one of them.
It is stated at the outset that Hippocrates is still a point of reference in all sorts of medical debates (p. 4) and at...