Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome by J.C. McKeown

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Galen, one of the ancient world's most revered physicians, once said, "The only difference between doctors in Rome and highwaymen is that the doctors do their work in the city, not in the mountains."

What a cynical viewpoint from one of the best of his profession! Obviously, attitudes toward health care were as controversial in the ancient world as they are now, judging from all of the anguish expressed lately by members of the U.S. Congress. It is with these controversies in mind that J.C. McKeown, Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison collected quotes from the ancient sources to produce A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome.

McKeown groups his quotes by category, including medicine, religion and magic, the doctor in society, attitudes towards doctors (that included the quote above), anatomy, sex matters, women and children, preventative medicine, treatment and diagnosis, and cures (many dubious if not outrageous.)
Much of the "wisdom" of the ancients he includes in his text leaves you scratching your head or, in some cases, outright appalled. Individuals whose teachings have been the foundation of medical ethics for centuries have expressed sentiments towards the healing arts that I certainly did not expect.

For example, Hippocrates himself once said "I shall begin with a definition of what I consider medicine to be, it consists of freeing patients from their disease, dulling the intensity of diseases, and not taking on hopeless cases, since medicine can do nothing for them."

He goes on to explain, "Some people criticize the medical art because of doctors who refuse to take on hopeless cases. They claim that those they do take on would recover by themselves, while they do not touch those who do need help. If medicine really is an art, they assert, it should cure all alike...But, whenever someone suffers from a disease that is too strong for the resources available to medicine, there should be no expectation that such an affliction can be overcome through medicine."

Hippocrates, the so-called "father of medicine" sounds like an ancient insurance company executive!

Two icons of health in the ancient world, Asclepius god
of medicine and healing and his daughter Hygeia
personification of health depicted as household gods. Roman
100-150 CE Bronze.Photographed at The Getty Villa,
Pacific Palisades, CA 
by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Other quotes, though, elicited a smile.  Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia opines, "It is better to have sexual intercourse infrequently, though it revitalizes sluggish athletes, restores a husky voice, and cures back pain, dull vision, mental problems, and depression."

Some even cloaked a hint of truth within their admonitions. In his On Medicine, Aulus Cornelius Celsus warns, "People with weak constitutions  —most city dwellers and practically everyone who is keen on literature belong in this category — need to monitor their health more carefully than other people, so that by taking precautions they may compensate for the deficiencies in their physical well-being or in their environment or in their activities."

Apparently, Celsus believed anyone who read much must obviously be the Roman version of a couch potato!

One reviewer pointed out that McKeown's little book is best consumed in small bites and I would tend to agree. It is not written as a page turner and McKeown has not made any effort to interpret the remarks or even provide some degree of context to them. But, it certainly raised my awareness of such issues as eugenics in the classical world (see my resulting blog post, Ancient Eugenics: Much More Than Just Selective Infanticide), the ancient practice of talk therapy (I thought it was a modern construct), and that the ancients, though famous for their culinary binges, even dealt with anorexia.  In other words, it made me think! 

A preview:



More suggested reading:



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