The Magazine

No Harm Done

The origins of modern medicine in the Greek healing arts.

Aug 31, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 46 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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The more professionalized and established observational medicine became, the more patients would find themselves turned away by physicians. Those were the ones whose last resort were the temples of Asklepios. Against older theories, Wickkiser brilliantly shows how the two approaches to healing can rise to power simultaneously: When skill fails, faith prevails. Temples are the refuge of those unwilling to give up.

Had Wickkiser stopped here, this would have been a short, clear book on a fascinating facet of Greek medicine complete with the obligatory (in this case rather gentle) academic assassination. The victims here are Emma and Ludwig Edelstein, whose massive two-volume work on the cult of Asklepios appeared in 1945 and dominated the field until now. Wickkiser reproaches them for having based their interpretation of the cult on literary evidence alone while ignoring the artifacts on the ground.

The Edelsteins were German Jews who left Germany for America as soon as Emma finished her doctorate at Heidelberg in 1933. They were hardly in a position to traipse around Greece during World War II.

Wickkiser himself then adds a rather sterile reading of Athenian ruins, and shows in the process how a perfectly fine scholar gets his brain addled and his writing scrambled when he succumbs to the temptation to be hip by adopting the lingo of progressive academia.

In 420 B.C. the Athenians, then at war with Sparta, had the bright idea to import the cult of Asklepios from Epidauros, a city that controlled access to the Peloponnese and was thus of strategic importance to Athens. Epidauros was the target of repeated Athenian attacks during the Peloponnesian war: "That the Athenians chose to memorialize the cult's Epidaurian origins in the name of another festival of Asklepios integrated into the Eleusinian Mysteries (the Epidauria)," Wickkiser explains, "suggests that Athens imported the cult as a way of securing the good will of Epidauros during the Peace of Nikias."

Perfectly fine. But Wickkiser then launches into a meticulous "reading" of the Acropolis as a demonstration of Athenian dominance whose individual components "share in the reflective text of empire published across the Acropolis." It is at this point, as Wickkiser tries to combine his interpretation of the fancy new location of the cult of Asklepios on the Acropolis with an obligatory critique of empire-building, that the book falls apart.

That's a shame, because for so many pages it is a pleasure to accompany Wickkiser on his textual discoveries, and in his leisurely rambles around the ruins that were denied the valiant Edelsteins.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.