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Mr Galen

April 14, 2011

Celebrating Vivian Nutton – by Philip van der Eijk

My first meeting with Vivian Nutton was when he gave a lecture at Leiden University some time in the late 1980s.

At the time, I was working on my PhD on Aristotle’s theory of sleep and dreams, and since there is a medical background to Aristotle’s ideas, I was beginning to develop an interest in ancient medicine, especially Hippocrates and Diocles. Yet the name of Galen – the topic of Vivian’s talk – did not mean very much to me; and during the lecture, Galen’s figure remained shadowy in the literal sense, for the technology was letting us down and the slide projector did not manage to produce the famous picture of him we were all waiting for. Yet that was more than compensated for by Vivian’s vivid lecture style and his entertaining table talk at the dinner afterwards. It was the beginning of a long collegial friendship and collaboration.

A few years after this meeting, at the Leiden conference on ‘Ancient Medicine in its Socio-Cultural Context’ (1992), Vivian served on the academic committee and delivered the keynote lecture on one of his favourite topics, ‘the medical meeting place’. The first sentence of that lecture, reproduced in the conference volume of 1995, ran as follows: “The loneliness of the ancient physician would make for a splendid title for a book on ancient medicine.” Again, Galen’s figure loomed large in the background. No less unforgettable was the table speech in Latin that Vivian produced at the conference dinner.

Ironically, that Leiden conference, attended by more than 150 delegates, marked the beginning of a remarkable surge in interest in Graeco-Roman medicine – a development that has continued ever since and that has led to the establishment of ancient medicine as a popular subject within classics and ancient history degree programmes at British universities. Vivian sometimes rehearsed the anecdote of a London taxi ride in the early 1980s together with Geoffrey Lloyd and James Longrigg: after narrowly surviving a number of dangerous moves by the driver, they said to each other that this had nearly been the end of ancient medicine in the UK. That would have been close to the truth at the time, but no longer so ten years later, when ancient medicine had begun to gain territory as a panel in the annual meetings of the Classical Association and the American Philological Association – not to mention similar meetings in other European countries. It is a development to which Vivian made major contributions, not least through his fine survey Ancient Medicine, published in 2004.

What applies to ancient medicine in general applies to Galen in particular, for here, too, we owe a great deal to Vivian. It is no exaggeration to say that he pioneered the study of Galen long before it became fashionable, both philologically and from the point of view of medical, social and cultural history. His critical editions of Galen’s On Prognosis and On My Own Opinions for the Berlin Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, and his forthcoming edition of Galen’s On Problematic Movements for CUP, are landmarks in Galenic scholarship. And I am very pleased to announce that they will soon be followed by his translation and commentary of the newly discovered Galenic work On Avoidance of Distress, to be published in the new series Cambridge Galen Translations, to which he will continue to contribute both on the advisory board and as a co-translator.

Philip van der Eijk is Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Classics and History of Science, Humboldt University Berlin, Germany.

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