HIPPOCRATES NOW: The ‘Father of Medicine’ in the Internet Age

Helen King

Bloomsbury (2019) h/b 262pp £85 (ISBN 9781350005891)

The blurb announces that ‘we need to talk about Hippocrates’. When you get to the end of the book you may wonder (as I did) whether we have all talked a little too much about Hippocrates over the millennia, but this is very much the point being made. K. tells us (p.14): ‘I regard this book not only as a study of the contemporary Hippocrates but also as a case study in how classical studies plays out in news media, social media and the internet more broadly’. She says little about the historical Hippocrates for the excellent reason that almost nothing is known about him for sure—her first chapter (‘What we know about Hippocrates’) is a single short sentence. Her focus is (as she tells us on her blog) to look at ‘the online uses of Hippocrates to make claims and counter-claims about medicine, to sell products or to promote theories’. In this she succeeds admirably, and the book leaves the reader both alarmed and amused (in equal measure) by the credulity and the duplicity of the surfing public.

The modern vision of the ‘father of medicine’ is a construct made up from over two millennia of myth-making, as described in chapter two (‘What we thought we knew’). The plane-tree on Cos, the iconography of the man himself (illustrated with some good reproductions here) as the ‘kind, wise, old’ man whose age and health are a good advertisement for his services—one website claims that he lived to be 115—even if he could not cure his own alleged baldness. 

Chapter three goes online to look for Hippocrates. The Wikipedia page on Hippocrates has in the past told us (on no evidence at all) that Hippocrates spent two years in prison—a legend which is still to be found on several other websites to this day and which has been embellished to the point where people now claim that he wrote some of his major works while in the slammer, like a Greek John Bunyan, and treated his fellow prisoners when he was not scribbling. 

The problem of authority multiplies when printed books repeat internet fake news and then are themselves cited on yet more internet pages. ‘Hippocrates in prison’ has been spun to show Hippocrates as a prototype of the ‘natural healer’ fighting sinister priests in his own day and big Pharma in ours. The biggest whopper is perhaps the one that tells us that Hippocrates wrote an oath and that all doctors have to swear it. For one thing, the text of the Oath as we have it is not by Hippocrates; for another, doctors do not recite it (my daughter is a GP and she should know), and for a third the oath is annoyingly vague on details and so less than useful for modern purposes. It is still nonetheless thrown at doctors who kill—or even just those who go on strike—as if it were a trump card. 

Chapter four looks at the wider media (online and print) and again everyone has their own agenda. There have been debates about the term ‘father of medicine’—some people give the soubriquet to the Egyptian Imhotep who predated Hippocrates by a good couple of millennia, which is music to the ears of the Black Athena school but (again) relies on evidence which is thin to minimal. There was also the infamous ‘Poop Scoop’ in 2017 when an article on parasitic worms found in an archaeological research paper was picked up by the Daily Mail and spun with a headline that ‘Ancient Greece was infested with human parasites’ and (of course) that ‘Hippocrates was right,’ along with the usual misinformation about the Corpus and the Oath. Hysteria, the ‘Hippocrates detox diet’—all are laid at his door to show both that ancient medicine was ‘bonkers’ but that Hippocrates was somehow always right.

Chapter five looks at the big quotations which everybody knows were first said by Hippocrates—except they weren’t. ‘First do no harm’ appears everywhere—even in Holby City where it is given in very un-Hippocratean Latin as primum non nocere —but does not appear in the text of the Oath and only vague approximations of it exist elsewhere in the Corpus (Epidemics 1.11 comes closest). ‘Walking is the best medicine’ is another one, picked up as the strapline of the ‘Exercise Is Medicine’ movement. There is even more to say about ‘let food be thy medicine’, and so it has a chapter to itself. Here again the great man is falsely credited with a mantra which is then used to endorse fad diets and even herbal teas. 

The final chapter brings all this neatly together and looks at the ‘holistic Hippocrates’, whose name and putative milieu have been seized on by those pushing their own ‘natural’ attitudes towards health. The fact that Hippocrates was working without microscopes or biochemists, using only his five senses to diagnose and to treat his patients, while living in an idyllic Greek island (Cos) with no pollution and no big Pharma encouraging him to peddle their overpriced drugs—all this is catnip to the anti-vaxxers, the alternative healers and the pseudo-scientists who claim to be able to ‘cure autoimmune diseases, autism and cancer’ until they get struck off the medical register. 

As a result the ‘father of medicine’ has become a poster-boy for any number of health-fads as he is no longer here to fight them and nobody knows what he said anyway. He has always been used as an ‘authority’, but things are worse now as he tends to be read in sound-bites of dubious authenticity which snowball in power with every re-tweet. The knowledge vacuum about the real man is filled with speculative and disingenuous material in a digital world which sees the ancient world through rose-tinted spectacles and ignores the grim reality of life in ancient times where life-expectancy was low and rates of infant mortality in particular terrifying. We can (these guys tell us) nonetheless get to know the real Hippocrates: ‘you can look at his face … you can use his juice, drink his soup’ (p.159).

I have one or two reservations about this otherwise fine and superbly produced book. One is that K. could have said more about the contemporary use of the Hippocrates school—reception moves sideways as well as down the chronological line and it is a great pity that she does not mention (say) Thucydides’ account of the plague in Athens, imbued as it is with medical influences, or the Sophists. Elsewhere (p. 39) she accuses ‘Hippocrates’ of not being ‘honest’ in his ‘deception’ of a patient undergoing an ear-treatment which is more apparent than real: this could equally however be said to show the ancient physician using the placebo effect well, harnessing the power of the mind to help the patient’s body, like the doctors who put honey on the cup in Lucretius (4.11-17). If the patient gets better, where’s the harm?

The argument is thoroughly and meticulously researched—about 30% of the book is taken up with 70 pages of footnotes itemising the myriad URLs and secondary sources which are also detailed in a further 22 pages of bibliography. Hippocrates is a good example to us all of the late Sir Kenneth Dover’s dictum that ancient Greece is at its most influential when it is misunderstood, and this handsome book goes a long way to putting the record straight. 

John Godwin

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