Assyrian medicine's place in the ancient history of medicine

Escaping Hellenocentrism

A recent book by the noted Oxford classical scholar Robin Lane Fox bears the title, The Invention of Medicine: From Homer to Hippocrates (2020). It points out that 'medicine is one of the great fields of achievement of the Ancient Greeks. Hippocrates is celebrated worldwide as the father of medicine.' Philip van der Eijk, in his review of this book in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (15.10.21), refers to Fox's approach as 'altmodischer Hellenozentrismus' [old fashioned Hellenocentrism], ignoring substantial non-Greek contributions to the history of medicine, for which Mesopotamia takes pride of place.

The existence of a highly systematic 12-tractate medical encyclopaedia in the Royal Library of Nineveh, some two centuries before Hippocrates, clearly demonstrates the myopic view of ancient medicine which still dominates even the latest histories of the subject. The Hippocratic writings consist of a rather random collection of individual essays from different periods on various medical topics, and questions have been raised as to whether this should be considered a 'corpus' of medicine. The Nineveh Medical Encyclopaedia, by contrast, represents a clearly defined corpus of medical treatises, organised anatomically from head to foot, while also including more general pathologies not directly related to any specific part of the body (e.g. skin disease, seizures, strokes, etc.).

Read more

Geller, M. 2010. Ancient Babylonian Medicine. Theory and Practice. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell

Stol, M. 2004. "An Assyriologist reads Hippocrates", in: Magic and Rationality in ancient Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman Medicine, ed. H.F.J. Horstmanshoff and M. Stol. Studies in Ancient Medicine 27, pp. 63-78. Leiden-Boston: Brill

Mark J. Geller

Mark J. Geller, 'Assyrian medicine's place in the ancient history of medicine', The Nineveh Medical Project, The Nineveh Medical Project, Department of the Middle East, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, 2022 []

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