Learning from the physicians of antiquity

Text: Trio MedienService Bonn

Philip van der Eijk is an internationally recognised expert in the history of ancient medicine, classical philosophy and the history of science. He is not only a highly decorated classicist, but also a committed science man-ager who is now in Berlin enriching the world’s prime location for classical studies.

Which type of health care is best? How can we prevent diseases? What improves the quality of life? These questions are crucial to modern societies. Philip van der Eijk’s research shows that people were already addressing issues like these in classical antiquity. The classical philologist focuses especially on the discourse in the Ancient World surrounding the public health system, and the theoretical, conceptual and methodological foundations of medicine. For instance, what influences did philosophical concepts have on therapies? “In the Ancient World there was a continuous dialogue between medicine and philosophy,” says van der Eijk. “In those days a physician also had to be a philosopher.” In the face of competition from popular cult healing practices, a physician in the Ancient World was expected to be convincing in both theoretical and rhetorical terms. In his arguments he had to abide by the rules of logic whilst strengthening society’s trust in medicine through communication, explains van der Eijk. This is surprisingly similar to modern demands.

For a long time, medical history dealt mainly with the history of illnesses, theories about illnesses and the history of treating diseases. But what does “health” mean? How healthy were the inhabitants of a city such as Rome during antiquity? What ideas did people have about a healthy lifestyle and the environment, about prevention and cure? What were people’s views on the interaction between body and mind in the Ancient World? Who was regarded as the competent, decision-making authority on such questions? With Philip van der Eijk Berlin’s research landscape has now gained an expert who is brilliant at generating interdisciplinary answers to such questions.

Since the beginning of 2010, van der Eijk has continued to broaden the base of his work on his current research project “Medicine of the Mind, Philosophy of the Body – Discourses of Health and Well-being in the Ancient World” in Berlin. At the same time, he is concentrating his multilateral research into ancient medicine and philosophy on questions of the body and soul. The nature of scientific communication is also a key focus of his attention. The way in which thought, knowledge and information are conveyed is changing, and nowadays it is no longer conceivable without such modern media as the Internet, email or Twitter. Together with modern linguistic and literary scholars the Humboldt Professor wants to show that it is only new media that evolve, whilst the discussion surrounding tensions between content and form, between thought and expression already existed in the Ancient World.

Medicine and culture

“Medical ideas and theories never exist in a vacuum. They always interact within culture and society,“ van der Eijk stresses. The classical scholar was one of the first to investigate ancient medicine in a broad social and cultural context, as opposed to the traditional approach of treating it simply as the history of a discipline. In this way he integrated medicine into the study of the Ancient World as a whole. Van der Eijk has written numerous publications on the communication and dissemination of medical ideas in classical antiquity, compelling analyses of their relationship to classical philosophy, religion and the history of ideas, and contributions on the history of their reception. Locating ancient medicine within a broader context is his main concern and his major achievement.

Van der Eijk, who was born in the Netherlands, not only builds bridges between times and disciplines, such as history, philosophy, literary studies and medicine, he is also a brilliant networker. Now he has come to Berlin from the British University of Newcastle and is very excited at the prospect of using all the outstanding opportunities that the German capital has to offer for his research. “Making good use of Berlin’s broad spectrum of opportunities for the future is a wonderful challenge,” says van der Eijk. At Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin the versatile scholar will be working together with the International Graduate School of Mind and Brain as well as the Excellence Cluster ‘Topoi’. In his work on the ancient Greek physician Galen he intends to cooperate more closely with the research project Corpus Medicorum Graecorum/Latinorum at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. The academy is publishing critical editions of ancient medical writings with accompanying translations in the context of the “Zentrum Grundlagenforschung Alte Welt”.

Similar to his work in Newcastle, van der Eijk also wants to offer seminars to medical students in Berlin. Talking about his experience so far he notes that “practitioners find it extremely useful to be offered insights into the theory and the history of communicating medical knowledge.” Doctors who have benefitted in this way would be well-equipped to generate changes in the international debate on better health systems.