Saturday, August 1, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Invention of Medicine. From Homer to Hippocrates by Robin Lane Fox.

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I just finished The Invention of Medicine. From Homer to Hippocrates by Robin Lane Fox. I’ve been dipping into some history of medicine lately, so this book caught my eye on Netgalley, even though it goes WAY back in time–back to the “invention” of medicine.

The author is a historian, known for his work on Ancient Greece. I should have recognized from this that the book would be pretty dense and academic; in other words, way over my head. But even so, I found much to appreciate in the information being presented. The author is clearly knowledgeable in his field and his enthusiasm for the subject and for his theories pulled me in. He was able, at times, to make it relatable to 2020, surprising me with how up-to-date the book is, given how in-depth the study was. When it wandered too deep into the weeds, I had to take a step back and let it wash over me, but I imagine that for scholars of ancient Greek history, the things I found less interesting are exactly the things that would excite debate.

In short, the author looks at the development of “medicine” as a craft. Surely there were healers before there were doctors, but he makes a distinction between the two. Starting with the famed doctors named in the Iliad, who were concerned mostly with treating war wounds and who attributed much non-traumatic (and some traumatic) sickness and healing to divine intervention, the book moves on to the body of work comprising “Hippocratic” medicine, which progressed beyond looking to gods/goddesses for explanation to looking at man/woman as part of Nature with innate illnesses. There was something more scientific in their methods, even if they got just about everything wrong.

The bulk of the book, and Fox’s central argument, goes to build a case for ascribing a portion of the Hippocratic corpus, namely books 1 and 3 of the Epidemics, to that actual person: Hippocrates. Not being a Greek scholar, it all sounded plausible to me, but what really impressed me was how much is known from the fifth century B.C. The author is trying to nail down the identity of real people living millennia ago and placing them within narrow 50-60 year time periods. I was struck more by the methodology than by the argument.

My overall impression is that this book can be read through a number of different lenses and so may appeal to a broader audience than historians of Ancient Greece or medical historians.