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“When you can’t write, write.”

April 14, 2011

Celebrating Vivian Nutton – by Laurence Totelin

A few weeks ago, I contacted Vivian with a question on Galen’s attitude towards poetry. He sent me his reply within 24 hours (actually a rather slow response by Vivian’s standards); it was, as usual, full of information on Galen himself and on the modern scholarship on the issue.

Anyone who has heard Vivian lecture, or who has read any of his numerous works, will have been struck by his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of medicine from Hippocrates (fifth century BCE) to William Harvey (17th century CE) and beyond; but not everyone will be aware of his amazing intellectual generosity. Vivian takes the duty of sharing and transmitting knowledge very seriously indeed, and takes pleasure in witnessing the expansion in the field of medical history. At a recent conference in Oslo, he expressed his joy at seeing new faces in the room, the faces of young scholars (some at the very beginning of their PhD studies) who will approach ancient medicine in new ways and develop innovative methods.

It is in order to help this new generation – a generation who may not have his familiarity with the Greek language – that Vivian has decided to take part in the ‘Translating Galen’ project (directed by Philip van der Eijk). The first volume will include a translation of a recently rediscovered text by Galen, On the Avoidance of Grief – a treatise in which Galen exposes for his reader the philosophical means by which he avoided sadness in the face of loss (written after many of his precious possessions had been destroyed by a great fire that swept Rome in 192 CE). Like Galen, Vivian has recently experienced loss with the announced closure of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, but he is not allowing disappointment to overwhelm him, and is working in positive ways to help those affected.

I met Vivian, as my potential PhD supervisor, nine years ago. At one point during the interview, he asked me to translate a random passage of Galen. I did very badly, but must have kept my calm, as I soon received an offer to study under his supervision (and a generous grant from the Wellcome Trust Centre). I must confess I found Vivian’s way of bringing everything back to Galen (my PhD thesis was on the recipes contained in the Hippocratic Corpus) slightly disconcerting, and I have never mastered the palaeography skills required to decipher his handwriting, but his supervising style suited me perfectly. Vivian was always available to help me with a translation or a missing reference: he lent me numerous books and off-prints and informed me about conferences I should attend, but he let me work in my own way and develop my own approach. We had a limited number of formal supervision meetings, but we often chatted over coffee (prepared by wonderful Joan) in the common room at the Centre. I have been allowed to learn from my mistakes and to manage my own time. Today I find myself repeating his advice to students suffering from writer’s block: “When you can’t write, write.”

Vivian must have followed his own advice on a regular basis, if one may judge by the vast number of his publications. My personal favourite is a short article entitled ‘The drug trade in antiquity’ (J R Soc Med 1985;78:138–45). It describes vividly, with humour, and with a wealth of detail the market competition between various actors in the field of ancient pharmacology: the learned medical author such as Galen, the rootcutter, the travelling drug-sellers, etc. It is intended for an audience of non- specialists in ancient medicine, but the specialist will learn much from it. Like Galen, who wrote treatises for medical students, practising physicians and interested laymen, Vivian has the ability to speak to varied audiences. This desire to address a range of publics he has instilled in me, and I have enjoyed teaching both ancient history and medical students.

I have drawn several parallels between Vivian and Galen, to whom Vivian devoted most of his career, and I know that Vivian himself likes the comparison. Of course Galen appears at times to be rather over- competitive and boastful, but beyond the façade, one finds generosity, concern for friends and for the future of the profession. These qualities define Vivian; may his legacy be as long-lasting as that of the illustrious physician from Pergamum!

Dr Laurence Totelin is Lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University.

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