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

Steve Hely’s 2009 novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist, contains perhaps my favorite made-up book title: Caesar, CEO: Business Secrets of the Ancient Romans. I like it not because it’s ridiculous—it is—but because it’s entirely plausible. (The boss of Hely’s narrator swears by it and refers to his business rival as “Carthage.”) Why do I mention this? Oxford classicist Robin Lane Fox’s The Invention of Medicine cries out for Helyan subtitling: “Ancient Wisdom for Wuhan”; “Viruses and ‘Vaccines’ in Fifth-Century Athens”; “Hippocrates and Herd Immunity.” (The imaginary publisher favors alliteration.) The actual subtitle, “From Homer to Hippocrates,” gives little away. The good news: Fox’s Invention of Medicine doesn’t strain for timeliness. The bad: there isn’t really any bad news—the book is intrinsically relevant and happened to be released mid-pandemic.

Fox’s “invention” is neither an old-timey set of remedies nor today’s advanced system of knowledge and practice. It is, instead, the conceptual shift from—beginning in the fifth century B.C.—the divine fatalism of Homer to the heightened empiricism of the medical (and historical) profession. (Indeed, this “broader wave of new thinking” in Greece also encompassed political philosophy, rhetoric, drama, and sculpture.) Case studies from, Fox argues, around 470 B.C., on the island-city of Thasos, were the marker.