Planting the Tree of Hippocrates

By Stephen J. Greenberg

Just a few hours ago, on a bright, windy day in Bethesda, MD, a group of dignitaries and guests gathered in front of the National Library of Medicine to plant a tree. The dignitaries included Dr. Lawrence A. Tabak, Principal Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health; Mr. F. Anthony Clifford, Chief Engineer, NIH Office of Research Services; Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, Director, National Library of Medicine; Dr. Constantine A. Stratakis, Scientific Director, Division of Intramural Research, Eunice K. Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Dr. David J. Lipman, Director, National Center for Biotechnology Information, NLM; and His Excellency, Christos P. Panagopoulos, Ambassador of Greece to the United States of America.

The true guest of honor, however, was the tree itself. It is a clone, made from a cutting, of the original “Tree of Hippocrates” on the Island of Kos in Greece. Legend has it that, in the shade of that tree, Hippocrates taught a new kind medicine to eager students who sat at his feet. In 1961, the Greek government, through its ambassador, presented a Hippocrates Tree sapling to NLM, which was planted next to NLM’s new building in 1962. The tree lasted for many years, until it succumbed to a fungal disease. Years of effort and research enabled NIH landscape architect Lynn Mueller to obtain the clone that was replanted this morning. The current ambassador, Drs. Tabak, Lindberg, Lipman, Stratakis, and Mr. Clifford all hoisted shovels to aid in the process.

The Hippocrates tree sapling in a prepared hole surrounded by six shovels in front of it's interpretvie plaque.It is, of course, much more than just a tree. It is a living link to a shared past, to the roots (pardon the pun!) of Western medicine itself. Much has been written about Hippocrates over the millennia; so much so that modern scholarship has discarded as spurious much that was once attributed to the man. It is even possible to think that a single man by that name never existed, and what we have are the writings of an entire school of philosopher/physicians, clustered around a figure from mythology. The document most commonly attributed to Hippocrates—the famous Oath—has no clear link to any historical figure, and is most often misquoted. Nowhere in the Oath does it say the famous line “First, do no harm,” Primum non nocere, which is in Latin anyway, a language Hippocrates did not speak. (Something like this quotation does appear in the Epidemics, but not in the Oath.) What then do we get from Hippocrates?

It is a way of thinking, of seeing, of analyzing. In his writings, particularly the Aphorisms, the Prognosis, and the Epidemics, Hippocrates sought consistency, order, and system in the theory and practice of medicine. Aristotle, who would have been a child when Hippocrates died, wrote that one could not study a subject where there was no order. Hippocrates knew that order, continuity, and system were vital, but they were not everything. “Life is short,” he famously wrote, “and the art is long; opportunity fleeting, experience perilous, and decision difficult.” Yet, it was necessary to try, and that meant keeping meticulous records of the hundreds of patients he saw, examined, and watched as their symptoms progressed to either recovery or death. These carefully recorded events were analyzed for differences and similarities, and then dispassionately discussed in the quiet shade of an old tree on the tiny isle of Kos. For more about the published works of Hippocrates and his successors, NLM maintains a website at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/greek/index.html.

And this is why the two trees, old and older, are so important to this library. Any great library is a repository of past knowledge, even if the past was only yesterday. “History is not what you thought,” wrote historians W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman; “It is what you can remember. All other history defeats itself.” Libraries are places that help us remember. We turn to them for new knowledge that we can synthesize with what we remember, and that brings forth new knowledge, that will be remembered for some future discussion. Once again, the issue is one of consistency and continuity. The old tree gives way to a new tree that is already old, and the tradition of learning and remembering continues.

After the speeches and the digging, there was a reception in the NLM lobby, and a special display of historical books and manuscripts influenced by Greek scholarship, curated by Michael North, Head of the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section of NLM’s History of Medicine Division. Then the tables and tents were folded and put away, the dignitaries and guests dispersed, but the “new” tree remained, waiting for a promised spring rain.

Stephen J Greenberg in his officeStephen J. Greenberg, PhD, is Coordinator of Public Services for the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.