BMCR 1993.01.19

1993.01.19, John Scarborough, Medical Terminologies: Classical Origins

, Medical terminologies : classical origins. Oklahoma series in classical culture ; v. 13. London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. ix, 303 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780806124438. $34.95.

“The earth,” wrote the philosopher Schelling, “is a book made up of miscellaneous fragments dating from very different ages. Each mineral is a real philological problem. In geology we still await the genius who will analyze the earth and show its composition as Wolf analyzed Homer” (quoted in F. A. Wolf, Prolegomena to Homer, edd. Grafton et al. [Princeton, 1985], p. 27). After that moment at the turn of the eighteenth century, before Lyell and Darwin (and before Hegel and Boeckh), it would no longer be possible for natural scientists to entertain the idea that classical philology had something to teach them about methodology in their own field. The traffic would run the other way as philologia became Altertumswissenschaft.

In one respect, however, scientists have learned and continue to learn from classical philology. Technical terminology, especially in the natural sciences, is formed almost entirely from elements drawn from Greek and Latin words. Hence a strange phenomenon in American universities: while the best available estimate shows that only about 17,000 undergraduates in the entire country are studying Greek (Sally Davis, Latin in American Schools [Atlanta, 1991], p. 74), students in their thousands and their tens of thousands enroll each year in courses called “The Language of Science” or “Medical and Scientific Terminology,” taught by professors of classics. It is not uncommon for one section of such a course to have hundreds of students enrolled. These students have no desire to learn Greek or Latin. They do, however (although they are unlikely to put it this way), want to learn one small part of classical philology.

Scarborough’s book is addressed to these students and to their teachers as well. In it they will find a succinct introduction setting forth the origin and rationale of scientific language followed by a series of chapters on the terminologies of different aspects of the life sciences. Three chapters on botany and invertebrate zoology lead to the heart of the book, nine chapters on the nomenclature associated with the systems of the human body. Four appendices explain Greek and Roman numerals, the Greek alphabet and its transliteration, pronunciation, and the inflection of Greek and Latin words. A bibliography directs readers toward both ancient sources and modern works.

Scarborough approaches the language of biology and medicine as a naturalist approaches a forest, recording observations, reflecting on what he observes, and grouping these observations and reflections under the headings of a hierarchical system of classification. Linguistically inclined users may have the same objection to Scarborough’s book that biologists sometimes have to old-fashioned natural history: that it reduces a system produced by a complex evolutionary process to a series of anecdotes. Yet natural history, as readers of Lewis Thomas and Stephen Jay Gould know, has its place. Scarborough’s approach, biological but Aristotelian rather than post-Darwinian, may be the best way to introduce technical matters to the unspecialized audience which he addresses.

Occasionally Scarborough misses a twig or two in the forest. “Leontodon” is not “a combined Greco-Latinate coinage” (18); “homosexual,” on the other hand, is and has nothing to do with homo, hominis (209). “Popilius Laenus” (107) and “festine lente” (228) may be misprints; “principle use of heat” (176) cannot be. But these, as well as some eccentric spellings (e.g. “pully” 150, “manniken” 159) and locutions (e.g., “composited from” 4, “cognative with” 178) are minor distractions.

Like all good naturalists, Scarborough tells stories, and he entertains as he instructs. Those who have read his other work or heard him speak will recognize his voice, with its generous application of popular salt to the meat of formal prose. Very dull students may wonder why they are being told about a Moravian Jesuit who ran a pharmacist’s shop in Manila (p. 94) or about infibulation of actors’ foreskins in ancient Rome (p.137), but others will not object to the digressions, and most will profit from them.

Some years ago, when I regularly taught a course in medical and scientific terminology, I faced large numbers of students for whom that course would be their only contact with classical studies. What, I often wondered, would those students think about our subject? Would they suppose that my colleagues and I dashed from class to the library, thrilled at the prospect of running down the origin of “pneumonocarditis” or “radix posterior” while saner folk studied more important matters? How could I show these students, who after all wanted only a course that would help them get over the MCATs, organic chemistry, and other educational hurdles, that classical studies merited their attention?

Sooner or later everyone who teaches a course like that asks those questions. The sentence with which Scarborough introduces his bibliography summarizes the approach he takes throughout the book and suggests one answer: “Medical and scientific etymology is a grand melding of several separate aspects of scholarship, ranging from Greek, Roman, and Byzantine history and biography to specific research into the histories of words in botany, chemistry, zoology, or any of the other discrete subjects within the broadest rubric of ‘science’.” Students will come away from this book with a sense of how classical studies equips a person to think about that melding of history, biography, and linguistics, and they will probably find those academic hurdles a bit lower as well.