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An intellectual comrade

April 14, 2011

Celebrating Vivian Nutton – by Liba Taub

Vivian Nutton is well known as an immensely impressive presence in the history of medicine and the wider scholarly world. His reputation is formidable, based on his breadth of knowledge, his original and penetrating work as a historian, and his command of the literature, both primary and secondary. As is often the case with eminent scholars in any field, younger scholars are sometimes intimidated in situations in which they are faced with such august figures.

Nutton was one of the participants in a one-day colloquium on ‘Science and Empire in the Roman World’ held at St Andrews University in 2004. Of course, his reputation preceded him, and a number of younger attendees commented that he was much less fierce in person than they had feared. In fact, his close engagement with all of the contributors, no matter how junior or senior, and his willingness to share ideas, information and bibliography, was most helpful and generous.

Inspired by the success and bonhomie of that colloquium, I have, with Aude Doody, organised a one- day workshop on ‘Scientific, Medical and Technical Writing in Ancient Greece and Rome’ annually since 2006 (several of these have kindly received funding from the Wellcome Trust). We invited Nutton to chair at our first, because of his stature in the field but primarily trusting his ability to do what was required. His involvement in these annual workshops has been crucial to their success.

Nutton was remarkably helpful from the beginning in establishing the tone that has been a hallmark of these workshops, in which very senior scholars with international reputations give papers in the same sessions with younger academics and promising postgraduate students. This has enabled us to focus on shared interests in technical texts that, in many cases, have not been much studied. Nutton led the way from the very first of our workshops, in treating everyone seriously, with attention and courtesy.

His chapter in the volume Authorial Voices in Greco-Roman Technical Writing (2009, based on papers given in 2007) is indicative of his interaction with and contribution to the group dynamic. At that workshop, held in Dublin, Harry Hine presented a paper on Roman authors in which he explored the different means by which authors writing in Latin present themselves to their readers, looking, for example, at the implications of authors’ choice between first-, second- and third- person linguistic forms. These choices produce different impressions of subjectivity and objectivity, from the autobiographical to the hidden author, which subtly shape readers’ expectations for uses of the text. Hine offers a valuable methodology to be used as tool for thinking about the ways in which linguistic forms can signal different relationships between author, text and reader.

Nutton was very intrigued, even inspired, by Hine’s approach, which he then applied in the chapter he contributed to the published volume, ‘Galen’s authorial voice: a preliminary enquiry’. Here, Nutton examines the Peri tōn porōn kinēseōn (De motibus dubiis: De motibus liquidis; On problematical movements), a text that has been considered spurious and has been largely neglected. (At the time of writing his paper, Nutton was producing a new edition, with Gerrit Bos, of the work, due for publication in July 2011.) Nutton presented his chapter as a test case, applying Hine’s methodology to this text, comparing Galen’s use of self-referential language there with those of a number of other medical authors, including Rufus of Ephesus and Aretaeus. Nutton concludes that Galen adopts the personal more frequently than other writers, who tend to use more neutral language. Galen has a reputation for being notoriously egocentric; Nutton’s linguistic analysis confirms this appraisal.

Within our workshops, Nutton’s straightforward and collegial engagement with others has repeatedly (and reliably) provided an inspiring example, on many levels. His intellectual comradeship and contributions have added enormously to our meetings, and to our publications. In his chapter mentioned above, he noted that “the style of an ancient medical text is almost as important as its content in conveying the overall message of the writer”. I think that I speak for all of the workshop participants over the years in saying that Nutton’s style of scholarly engagement has been, for our intellectual community, intellectually stimulating, unusually sharing and greatly welcome – in short, his style, as well as his content, has been much appreciated.

Professor Liba Taub is a member of the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

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