BMCR 2020.07.51

Hippocrates now: the “father of medicine” in the internet age

Helen King, Hippocrates now: the "father of medicine" in the internet age. Bloomsbury studies in classical reception. London; New York: Boomsbury Academic, 2020. x, 262 p.. ISBN 9781350005891 $170.00.

Preview

Helen King’s engaging examination of web-based appropriations of Hippocrates is especially salient reading during the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lock-downs.[1] Hippocrates Now: The ‘Father of Medicine’ in the Internet Agetakes the internet as its source material and demonstrates through a range of examples that the figure of Hippocrates has been co-opted into online health culture, sometimes as the founder of scientific medicine, while at other times as the founder of holistic healing practices. In addition to this analysis, King provides a clear and concise introduction to Hippocrates, making the book a valuable teaching tool as well as an insightful contribution to a sub-field that demands more attention than it has yet been granted: the intersection between ancient medicine and Classical reception studies.

As in her earlier scholarship, King demonstrates here the authoritative weight and adaptability of Hippocratic medicine in relation to modern ideas about healthcare and disease. Distinctive to Hippocrates Now is the recognition that what matters in web-based appropriations of Hippocrates is not the Hippocratic corpus itself, but the legendary figure of Hippocrates. Most of the Hippocratic receptions that King examines in this book are based on minimal (if any) familiarity with ancient texts. As King writes in the Introduction, “While there has always been an industry in telling stories about Hippocrates, I will investigate the extent to which the versions of Hippocrates that now surround us are specific to our age and its concerns. How do they help us to understand the uses of knowledge, specifically the uses of ancient Greek medicine, in the twenty-first century?” (5). Through this work, King uncovers the versions of Hippocrates that show up in the tacit knowledge of English-speaking internet users (95).

King’s emphasis on the appropriation of ideas about antiquity within the internet age fits into an emerging area of research that has focused on the ways that Classical antiquity enters social media, as represented especially in debates about masculinity, misogyny, and white supremacy.[2] King’s purpose, in part, is to present “a case study in how classical studies plays out in the news media, social media and the internet more broadly” (14), and it is valuable to have another angle on the conversation about how the concepts associated with Classical antiquity get used in these public spaces. While Hippocrates may seem less immediately political than discussions of race, gender, and empire, King’s analysis suggests the central importance of public health as a political concern. How we talk about healthcare at the collective and personal level has political implications, and, as King so deftly shows, Hippocrates haunts conversations about healthcare, well-being, and disease, in significant ways.

Following an introduction that discusses Classical reception as a lens for examining web-based engagements with Hippocrates, King devotes Chapters 1 and 2 to scholarly knowledge of Hippocrates. These two chapters serve as an excellent introduction to Hippocrates as a historical figure and as a legend. Chapter 1 (“What We Know About Hippocrates”) performs the legendary quality of our knowledge about the historical figure Hippocrates through two concise sentences and copious white space. Chapter 2 (“What We Thought We Knew”) takes more time to unravel the making of the myth of Hippocrates and the assemblage of his Corpus. In addition to laying the groundwork for King’s analysis of modern receptions of Hippocrates, this chapter raises core questions in the study of ancient medical texts: What is a treatise? What is an author? How can we detect the interventions of copyists? To what extent are these texts based on oral tradition? In this way, King situates her discussion of modern appropriations of Hippocrates within a longer history of making and remaking this legendary figure. As King writes, “We have always made Hippocrates in our own image: what does the Hippocrates promoted today tell us about ourselves?” (41).

Each of the ensuing five chapters explores appropriations of Hippocrates in different digital contexts: Wikipedia, news articles, collected quotations, diet culture, and holistic medicine.

Chapter 3 (“Sabotaging the Story: What Hippocrates Didn’t Write”) details King’s observations on the Wikipedia article on Hippocrates, in particular the apparent invention of a Hippocratic text (“The Complicated Body”) and a new legend about Hippocrates (he endured a twenty-year prison sentence). King makes some critical insights here: first, whereas Hippocrates used to function as a symbol of elite medicine, he now “belongs to everyone: mainstream medicine, alternative and complementary medicine, advertisers and the general public” (43). That is to say, Hippocrates is a flexible source of authority, compatible with a range of different, often conflicting, agendas. Second, King notes the similarities between “fundamentalist approaches to the Bible” and modern interpretations of the Hippocratic Corpus, where “everything depends on whether one can produce a verse in support” of one’s argument (44). This identification of a religious idiom in popular engagements with Hippocrates deserves close examination. Finally, King makes the compelling argument that the innovative story of Hippocrates spending time in prison reflects his usefulness as a symbol in resistance to the state and to “Big Pharma,” and therefore his “many areas of appeal to alternative and complementary medicines” (66). The tension that King traces between Hippocrates’ significance as a founder of modern biomedicine and a representative of holistic, complementary, and alternative healing practices is a central strength of the book.

Chapter 4 (“Needing a Bit of Information: Hippocrates in the News”) surveys the incorporation of Hippocrates into six different news stories. Here, King describes a central paradox in how scientific authority is constructed: despite the regular invocation of science “to ‘solve a puzzle’ or ‘decode a text’, … the prestige of Hippocrates remains intact: he named hysteria, he showed his ‘diagnostic prowess’ and, even if ancient medicine in general is ‘bonkers’, Hippocrates is right” (94). A consequence of the symbolic importance of Hippocrates across biomedical and holistic paradigms is that ancient Greek medicine is simultaneously held to be entertainingly mistaken and authoritative.

Chapter 5 (“Hippocrates in Quotes”) builds on earlier chapters to examine the function of “quotes” in lending authority through connection to Hippocrates (101). Observing that quotations are often “the main way in which people become aware of ‘Hippocrates’ today,” King focuses on two quotes that have tenuous relationships to ancient material: First do no harm—popular, King argues, because of the invasive quality of modern medicine—and Walking is the best medicine, which King examines as an appropriation within athletics and sports medicine.

Chapter 6 (“Let Food By Thy Medicine”) picks up where Chapter 5 leaves off, turning from sports medicine to the quote Let food be my medicine in medical journals and popular dietetic discourse. Once again, King notes that the quote serves as a source of authority for healthcare practitioners, but here she makes the additional point that the usefulness of quotes in supplying authority is “a feature of the self-promotion of various suppliers and theorists in the internet age” (123).

The final chapter (“The Holistic Hippocrates: ‘Treating the Patient, Not Just the Disease’”) returns to the instrumentalization of Hippocrates as a figurehead in holistic medicine, particularly in its conflicts with the pharmaceutical industry. As King points out, holism in general “presents itself as a return to a superior past” (133), such that Hippocrates fits in neatly as a proof of lineage. The core questions, as King puts them, are as follows: “What versions of holism are currently being projected back onto the classical past, what does this tell us about current views of what medicine should be, and how are the classical texts then used to reinforce what their new users mean by holism?” (133). Central to King’s answers to these questions is the association of modern holistic medicine with “drugless” healing practices and a focus on what in ancient medicine would be called regimen.

King concludes by rearticulating a key argument that threads throughout the book: “While once alternative forms of medicine tried to claim him as their founder in order to take on his antiquity and his moral respectability, today he is more likely to be a medical renegade, misunderstood by the Establishment, dedicated to overthrowing the very medical system which used to honour him as Father” (155). As King suggests, this tension between the appropriations of Hippocrates as an authority figure for biomedical and “alternative” forms of medicine might be framed as a historical shift. As part of this shift, King details four new factors: Hippocrates is encountered primarily in quotes; there is heightened awareness of the lack of reliable information about Hippocrates; a “personal connection with Hippocrates” stands in for reliable information; and, as a consequence a new mode of creative engagement with Hippocrates’ life and writings has emerged (158–59).

This book offers an insightful and oftentimes entertaining exploration of digital appropriations of Hippocrates. King never fully answers her key analytic question: Is this (particular appropriation) a use or abuse of Hippocrates? Indeed, her research takes us beyond this simple evaluation to a broader investigation of the variety of Hippocratic appropriations and the different goals and functions they represent. As King writes in her conclusion, “Hippocrates has always been a construct, but we are now even less confident that we can judge between a use and an abuse of his name. It is not just that it is difficult to find reliable information about him; there is simply no such information. … [F]or most people the first places they will learn about Hippocrates are news stories, answer sites or social media” (158). As King points out here, the study of Classical reception in the ephemeral and anonymous spaces of the digital world requires a new framework for understanding Classical expertise and authenticity, a framework that King’s book contributes substantively toward constructing.

Notes

[1] See pp. 14–15 for a thoughtful discussion of the merits and hazards of relying on the internet for scholarly research.

[2] See, for example, Zuckerberg (2018), Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age.