Book review: The Oxford Handbook of Science and Medicine in the Classical World

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, UK

 

Art of model of the universe
Cover of The Oxford Handbook of Science and Medicine in the Classical World, edited by PT Keyser and J Scarborough.

Classical antiquity has long been a subject of human fascination. The time period covered in this book ranges from around 1000 BCE to 650 CE. The editors have produced an encyclopedic volume of essays from scholars worldwide, resulting in a comprehensive source of information about the history of science and medicine in the classical world.

The opening chapter reminds us of the beginnings of mathematics almost 5000 years ago in the Protoliterate or Uruk period in Mesopotamia (today’s southern Iraq). The primary uses of mathematics were for accounting. Babylon and southern Iraq were also where early astronomy and astrology began. Early physicians known as Asipu were the equivalent of the Greek physician and philosopher Iatros, and had a surprisingly large choice of medicines to administer to the sick. Superstition and belief in the gods played a major part in healing in this era. It is interesting to note that the Greeks were aware of the medical knowledge in Mesopotamia.

A section on Egypt covers the mathematical and astronomical contributions from this period. The Egyptian calendar was not based on the moon unlike others, and they divided the year into 365 days much as we do today. Study of papyri and mummies reveals that Egyptian medicine was based on a combination of rational scientific ideas as well as superstition. Evidence of early orthopedic surgery has been gleaned from studies of bones in archaeological remains and complex imaging analyses of mummies using computed tomography (CT) scanning.

The contribution of India is not given short shrift. Studies of the ancient Vedic texts show that Indians had a decimal system over 3000 years ago. Aryabhata, the fifth century astronomer and mathematician, calculated the value of pi. The remarkable mathematical contributions of Brahmagupta and Bhaskara I are also described. India’s Ayurvedic contributions to medical practice are discussed with references to the important Sanskrit texts, a system that is still practiced today in some parts of the continent.

Early contributions from China are based on treatises surviving from the Sui (581–618 CE), Tang (618–907 CE), and Song dynasties (960–1279 CE). Liu Hui, a Chinese mathematician, had calculated the approximate value of pi as long ago as the third century CE.

The early contributions of Greek science cover contributions of Pythagoras and Plato, and a discussion of early Greek medicine would not be complete without the giant Hippocrates, whose influence continues to this day. Hellenistic Greek science covers the works of Epicurus, Herophilus, Eristratus, and other empiricists.

The section on Greco-Roman science covers the different medical sects such as the Asclepiadeans, Methodists, and Pneumatists. There are also chapters on Galen and Ptolemy, as well as Epicurianism and Stoicism. There is even a chapter on physiognomy. Alchemy, optics and vision, dietetics, pharmacology, and Greek and Roman surgical instruments are discussed comprehensively in individual chapters.

The final section covers late antique and Byzantine science, including the contributions of Aristotle.

The book is a collection of well researched essays, each with comprehensive reference lists for further reading. The index is helpful. The editors have done a remarkable job in collecting so much information about our worldwide ancient scientific and medical heritage in this unique opus.

 

The Oxford Handbook of Science and Medicine in the Classical World
Edited by PT Keyser and J Scarborough
Oxford University Press 2022, Paperback
ISBN 9780197611968

 


 

ARPAN K. BANERJEE qualified in medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham 1995–2019. He was President of the radiology section of the RSM 2005–2007 and on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012–2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology 2012–2017. He is Chairman of ISHRAD. He is author/co-author of papers on a variety of clinical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books, including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology (2005) and The History of Radiology (OUP 2013).

 

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