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THE INVENTION OF MEDICINE by Robin Lane Fox Kirkus Star


From Homer to Hippocrates

by Robin Lane Fox

Pub Date: Dec. 8th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-465-09344-1
Publisher: Basic Books

Fresh historical context—social, cultural, and intellectual—on the emergence of an entirely new medical practice in ancient Greece.

In his latest, classicist Fox, a winner of the James Tait Black Award and Duff Cooper Prize, among others, focuses on the Hippocratic corpus that entered the Greek medical discourse in the fifth century B.C.E. In a meaty exploration, the author closely examines the Epidemics, a collection of books attributed to Hippocrates—the founding father of rationally based medicine—and his immediate associates, which posited a conceptual break with earlier medical practice. “They are the very first observations and descriptions of real-life individuals during a number of days which survive anywhere in the world,” writes Fox, who is consistently thorough and logically coherent as he delves into the language, style, and content of the texts. The Hippocratic authors believed that humans were “part of a natural world which is explicable in terms of underlying elements and forces.” Thus, when considering health and treatment, they excluded the influence of the gods, which was a far cry from the “thought-world” of Homer. Equally important was the emphasis on ethical principles guiding the hands of practitioners of their craft. Combined, the books present a significant medical course of understanding, explanation, and prediction. Fox also pays close attention to “voiceprints” and the relevant contexts of the books, seeking to pin down their dates, which are disputed among scholars. In the process, readers journey with the author through such topics as art and art dating; place portraiture; the effects of new medical concepts on dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides as well as historians (a great deal more on Thucydides than Herodotus); the role of sanctuaries in ancient Greek cities; the relation of diseases to seasons and climates; and the ties binding together the Hippocratic texts, “masterpieces of method and observation” that would serve as reference books for fellow doctors.

Searching, lucid, and challenging, Fox's book presents a vivid picture of Hippocratic creativity.