(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Readers looking for a traditional biography in Hippocrates will be disappointed. Relatively little is known about the historical Hippocrates, and Jacques Jouanna, professor of Greek at the Sorbonne, is a judicious scholar, meticulous with his sources and seldom given to speculation. Readers who want to learn about physicians in classical antiquity, however, will find Hippocrates a rich fund of information closely analyzed and systematically arranged. In fact, the book concerns Hippocrates’ followers (the Hippocratic physician) and the miscellaneous medical treatises, manuals, aphorisms, and theoretical works that they wrote (the Hippocratic corpus), as much as it concerns Hippocrates. It is a work of formal scholarship, replete with footnotes and appendices to satisfy the evidential requirements of colleagues, and it often addresses controversies that may bewilder nonspecialists; nevertheless, for anyone keenly interested in the history of medicine, the history of the scientific method, or even Hippocrates himself, it is substantive and elucidating. The author unfolds the complexities of early medicine and philosophy in lucid prose with abundant detail and occasional touches of humor.

About Hippocrates’ life this much, according to Jouanna, is credible: He was born in 460 b.c.e. in Cos, a Greek island off the coast of Turkey. He belonged to a prominent branch of the Asclepiad family. Large, aristocratic, and wealthy, the family boasted several famous physicians among its ancestors. Medicine, in fact, was the family trade, and Hippocrates received his medical training within the family; he may have also studied briefly with the philosopher Democritus of Abdera, who promulgated atomism. After establishing himself as a leading physician in Cos, he left the island and traveled the Greek mainland, settling in Larissa, Thessaly. His fame as a physician steadily grew, as did his circle of students. Traditionally, such students were relatives, but Hippocrates departed from tradition, accepting non- family members and even non-Greeks for a fee. This was the core of the Hippocratic school, whose many talented practitioners wandered throughout the Hellenic world gathering firsthand knowledge about diseases and assembling a body of information far larger and more varied than the Asclepiads could have compiled on their own. Hippocrates was apparently an imposing, energetic man, forceful in speech and widely learned—a charitable aristocrat who had many wealthy patients but was public-spirited enough to minister to the poor and to dispatch his son and students to cities undergoing medical crises. He himself probably served as an envoy between Cos and Athens, defending the island’s interests during the Persian War. His son, Thessalus, became a renowned physician and diplomat in his own right. Hippocrates died in Larissa in 370 b.c.e.

Such facts as these come from biographies written during the Byzantine era, as well as near-contemporary sources, among them Plato and Aristotle, who spoke of Hippocrates with great respect. To Greek and Roman intellectuals, according to Jouanna, Hippocrates’ authority in scientific matters was almost unrivaled, and he was widely called the father of medicine. In fact, Hippocrates was too revered: Cults devoted to him sprang up soon after his death, and legends and fictionalized biographies followed, so it is difficult to separate fact from fabrication. Some stories, spread by rivals of the Hippocratic school, are slanderous (he is even accused of plagiarism and arson), but for the most part he is idolized as having divine wisdom and skill. This hagiographic tone obscures many details that would be valuable to know. For instance, how many of the sixty books that constitute the Hippocratic corpus were written by Hippocrates himself? Jouanna refrains from giving a direct answer, saying only that several were almost certainly authored by Hippocrates and that the most reliable historical source lists twelve.

Separating the biographical wheat from the chaff occupies the first and shortest of the four parts of Hippocrates. In it and the second part, which describes Hippocratic physicians in their social milieu, Jouanna develops two themes important to the history of medicine. The first involves how physicians establish their authority. Ancient Greece had a contentious culture. Accordingly, competency in treating diseases, while essential, was not the only qualification. A physician also had to be a skillful orator if he (all were men) wanted to attract patients, rebut the challenge of rivals, and gain public office. The competition in large cities was especially lively, and public debates often took place between exponents of the...

(The entire section is 1916 words.)