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Classics in discussion

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Medicine and Classicism in a Comparative Perspective

21:35, Thu 29 Oct 2009

David Arnold and Peter E Pormann discuss the idea of the classic in medicine.

Medical systems often resorted to constructing a classical past in order to shape and legitimise current medical theory and practice. This wish to forge a classical tradition appears to be a truly global and diachronic phenomenon. Greek doctors in particular served as a model of reference for many variegated cultures and societies. In second-century Rome, tenth-century Baghdad, sixteenth-century Florence, and eighteenth-century London, physicians used Hippocrates as a medical authority and deferred to him as the ‘father of medicine’. Other ‘classical’ authors emerged in various contexts: Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) became the ‘prince of physicians’ during the medieval period in the Latin West and Arabic- and Persian-speaking East. The Indian and Chinese medical systems selected and constructed their own classics. Moreover, even today, the appeal to a classic such as Avicenna can sanction medical practice in so-called ‘traditional’ health system found in the Middle East, Africa, or India.
But what does it mean to be a medical ‘classic’? How do different cultures forge their own medical tradition through references to classical authors? And how does medical classicism impact on current health practices?