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Reading lists, limericks and lunches

April 14, 2011

Celebrating Vivian Nutton – by Helen King

I encountered Vivian for the first time when I was at UCL as a student, gravitating towards ancient medicine. I was told that I had to meet Dr Nutton, and it was clear that it was a rite of passage into this academic field. I made the appointment; I had no choice.

It was a terrifying experience, not least because he recommended me to read a long list of works in German, and I was too busy to do much speaking myself as I tried to work out how to spell the authors’ names while he ran through these at very high speed! That was my introduction to one aspect of Vivian’s role in the history of medicine that nobody else comes near filling: the provider of bibliography on pretty well everything, in a range of languages. An hour with Vivian is always much better value than a day searching library catalogues or databases. I am not sure how we moved from this to regular lunch meetings, at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, with Vivian always respecting the impoverishment of students and paying for my meal. At some point, we progressed from this to each paying for our own food, and I was aware that a subtle transition had occurred: I was now a colleague, not a student.

In a further shift in our professional relationship, he asked me to read the whole of his Ancient Medicine in draft, and it was an odd experience for me to be in the position of telling him what was wrong with his writing, after he had performed this service for me several times. Coming at the manuscript as a whole, I was able to see repetitions and non sequiturs that were not clear to Vivian, but I also learned a lot about the aspects of a topic that I have not studied for myself. In many ways, I was delighted that the publication of this monograph meant that there was at last a book that I could recommend to students as a one-stop shop, but I soon realised that it was a mixed blessing, as students felt that there was nothing they could add to this encyclopedic, learned, but also enjoyable book.

Vivian has established ancient medicine as a field in the UK, not least as an undergraduate subject. In his research, he manages to be both a philologist, happy with the minutiae of texts and translations, and a social historian of medicine, never forgetting that texts were written in a context – and often used in many different contexts. His range, from the ancient world to the Renaissance, is unrivalled, and his delight in the rare materials he has encountered on the way is infectious. Andrew Cunningham once wrote that “Vesalius as vivisectionist was simply Galen restored to life”; hearing and reading Vivian, I have sometimes wondered if he was channeling Galen. I have always been impressed by his accessibility: he is happy to talk to school groups and undergraduate societies as well as being an enthusiastic university lecturer. His writing skills include limericks; after I told him about my experiences teaching about early dissection, he sent me the following, which is above my desk as I write now:

Alexandrian medical men
Preferred vivisection, but then
For reasons obscure
It lost its allure
And never was heard of again.

In other ways too, he is a man of hidden talents. Many of us know about his bell-ringing and his singing, but I suspect fewer have seen his Russian dancing; I was witness to this when, with one of his children, we escaped from a series of deadly boring welcomes to a Berlin conference given by various dignitaries, and for reasons that are not at all clear, Vivian crouched down and started to dance.

Vivian has supported initiatives such as the regular colloquia on ancient medicine originally set up by Philip van der Eijk and me as a forum for those in many disciplines working with ancient medical texts. His assistance here has ranged from giving his acerbic and unfailingly accurate advice on which proposals for papers to accept, to being present at many of the events themselves. He manages to be genuinely welcoming to newcomers to the field, while never suffering fools gladly. He is one of those academics who will never retire; he has taught me just how many projects it is possible to work on at the same time. While it is good that he can spend more time with Christine, his children and the rest of his family, it is also good to know that he will continue to be a defining presence in ancient medicine.

Professor Helen King is attached to the Department of Classics, Open University, UK.

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