Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Medicine in ancient Alexandria

The Danish physician Thomas Bartholin, late of yesterday's-post fame, encouraged both wide reading and wide travel as curatives for asinine syndrome. He notes in On medical travel that travel by physicians for the purpose of study is a time-honored tradition:
In Cyprus [Galen] investigated the mines, calamine, pompholyx and other things. Nor in passing by did he fail to greet the Alexandria of which, such was the fame of its school, that Ammianus Marcellinus, bk. 22 declares that whatever the experience of the physician, his authority was sufficiently recommended if he could say that he had been trained in Alexandria.
So, what was medical training like in Alexandria? Did the Great Library of Alexandria serve as an early medical library? Did the students come in to use the test prep books on reserve?

For some answers, let's turn to John Vallance's essay Doctors in the Library: the strange tale of Apollonius the Bookworm and other stories, which makes up chapter 5 in The Library of Alexandria: centre of learning in the Ancient World (2000). Vallance notes that while Alexandria "teemed with physicians," the method of medical education was largely one of apprenticeship with private practitioners--not the academic medical center model we know today. So what role might the Library collections have played in medical learning? There is apparently scant evidence that any physicians were affiliated with the Library or conducted research there, although Galen reported that medical texts were routinely seized by customs officials at the Alexandrian port (and, as Vallance notes, "originals were deposited in the Library, marked in the catalogue 'from the ships,' and their owners, if they were lucky, were supplied with copies." Now that's what I call library acquisitions!)

In fact, Vallance identifies two somewhat contradictory developments or trends in medical learning which may, or may not, be attributable to the influence of the Great Library on the city's medical men. One was the rise of critical commentary on the Hippocratic corpus, based on close reading of the original texts housed in the collection; the other was the rise of the Empiricist sect which, because it eschewed theory in favor of experience, oddly came to downplay the role of medical research (because as any postdoc knows, you can't really construct a good research study if you don't have a theory to test).

Did the Great Library benefit medicine? The jury still seems to be out on its direct relationship to practical advances in the medical arts, but one thing is clear from the extant literature: the Library's collections got everyone reading. As Vallance says:
By the middle of the third century BC, many doctors had broad interests in reading, and not merely in reading medical literature. ... The late third and second centuries BC saw the authority of the Hippocratic writings (not to say the importance of medical literature in general) continue to grow. The high status of enjoyed by the philological study of texts in Alexandria no doubt encouraged this; our earliest evidence for critical lexicographical work on Greek texts is focused on medical texts."
Thomas Bartholin would have been proud.

By the by, I could have used more details about Apollonius the Bookworm. Maybe Vallance has a monograph in the works...

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