The Best Doctor Is Also a Historian
The Rootcutter's inaugural essay series aims at exploring connections between ancient and modern medicines—and not only the connections we make, but also why we make those connections and what impact they have on how we think about and conduct modern medical practices, both as healthcare experts and as service users. This series has been generously funded by the Society for Classical Studies Ancient Worlds, Modern Communities grant.
What Would Hippokrates Do? Classical Reception in the Age of COVID-19
by Nicolette D'Angelo
February 6, 2023
The authority of Hippocrates has been invoked time and again in support of anti-vaccination and Covid-denial movements. Nicolette D'Angelo explores what makes Hippocrates such an apt figurehead for anti-science advocates and asks what—if anything—historians and Classicists should do about it.
Nicolette D'Angelo is a PhD student at UCLA. Her MPhil dissertation (Oxford University), responding to the pitfalls and ambiguities of classicizing plague exempla in the age of COVID-19, argued for contagion as an operative model of reception, particularly digital receptions.
Did Hippokrates cure the Athenian plague? What can the so-called Father of Medicine teach us about pandemics? Would Hippokrates endorse lockdowns and vaccination? With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in the West, numerous articles, blog posts, interviews, and entire books have made similarly facile ancient-modern parallels. To borrow from Neville Morley’s quip regarding invocations of Thucydides’ account of the Athenian plague, “Thucydides is a virus… turning those infected into dribbling zombies writing op-eds about how current events demonstrate the eternal relevance of Thucydides” (and, we might add, of Hippocrates).
This kind of thinking may feel deeply tired, overly presentist, and unrelated to the devastation of a pandemic that continues to rage. As Yung-in Chae wrote for Eidolon in March 2020, “Classics,” at least as it is currently configured, “will not save us.”
Many seem to hope it will nonetheless. Hippokrates has been adopted as a patron saint of proponents of holistic and alternative medicine, the wellness industry, and anti-vaccination communities. By examining the viral spread of Hippokrates in online spaces and contextualizing the logic underlying this reception in light of the history of Hippokratic receptions more broadly, this development becomes less surprising than it may initially appear.
Hippokrates has been adopted as a patron saint of proponents of holistic and alternative medicine, the wellness industry, and anti-vaccination communities.
Hipp-19. Profile of Hippocrates inside a cell being infected by COVID-19. Image by Nicolette D'Angelo. Used by permission of the author.
As examined by one episode of Maintenance Phase, a podcast that interrogates the ideological underpinnings of health fads and wellness scams, there is a deep interrelationship between wellness and conspiracy communities that has become painfully visible in the age of COVID. In a content analysis of tweets I found using Twitter’s advanced search function, I discovered that the figure of Hippokrates looms large at the intersection of these interests.
I conducted my search in mid 2021, setting the search parameters to March 2020 (when many western nations acknowledged COVID-19) to present, and searching for ‘Hippocrates’ and ‘COVID’ in all languages. Below is a small sampling of particularly telling tweets and hashtags.
“Hey Fauci! Remember that whole oath thing, ‘do no harm’?” one Tweet asks, punning on “Hippocrates” and “hypocrite.”
Users’ sentiments range from accusing doctors of overestimating the number of coronavirus cases (i.e., in order to get some kind of bonus from the pharmaceutical industry) to the idea that “stopping the spread” itself inflicts deaths.
@UK_National: "Don't medics do Hippocrates anymore?"
We see frequent invocations not only of “do no harm” and the Hippocratic Oath, but also of aphorisms like “Let food be thy medicine.”
@miaffs415: Wasn't it Hippocrates who said "let food be thy medicine"? Ever heard of the Hippocratic Oath?
One suspended Twitter account, “Hippocrates Has Fallen,” often replies scathingly to tweets supporting COVID restrictions and describes themselves as a “medical red-piller.”
Here, harm is reconfigured in terms of economic loss and concern about “freedom.” According to this view, it is fundamentally anti-Hippokratic, and thus fundamentally anti-scientific, to force people to adjust to a “new normal,” even if it would have saved lives at the onset of the pandemic. The classical vocabulary seems readily to justify their concerns.
What are we to make of Hippokrates the anti-vaxxer? As part of a larger digital turn in classical receptions studies, Helen King has demonstrated methods of analyzing these kinds of digital Hippokratic receptions. Her open-access monograph Hippocrates Now: The ‘Father of Medicine’ in the Internet Age surveys wider public engagements with Hippokratic ideas via Twitter, Wikipedia edits, news stories, quotes, and memes.
Hippocrates Now is arguably the first scholarly writing to unpack the classical reception of Hippokratic ideas among online communities, including but not limited to wellness and anti-vax communities. Nowhere do we see more clearly the tension between Hippokrates as representative of the western medical establishment and Hippokrates as “medical renegade […] dedicated to overthrowing the very medical system which used to honour him as Father” (p. 155).
For every medical practitioner who has sworn an abridged version of the Hippokratic Oath, there is a diet juice cleanse, a bottle of apple cider vinegar, or a hair loss treatment that invokes the ancient physician’s name. There is even a Hippocrates Wellness (formerly known as the Hippocrates Health Institute) in Florida that professes holistic cures for cancer and offers resort programs aimed at weight loss and “life transformation.” In 2021, Hippocrates’ founder, Brian Clement, instructed customers and their families to avoid COVID-19 vaccination.
King explains how anti-scientific Hippokratic receptions are made possible by celebratory views of the ancient physician as preeminently rational: his association with the idea of “nature,” as she discusses in a chapter on holistic medicine, can be juxtaposed to the supernatural (as in antiquity) or to the artificial (as on the internet). For anti-vaxxers, whose lack of faith in immunological interventions finds its echo in Hippokrates’ “natural” approach to healthcare, Greek medicine represents Western medicine’s prelapsarian state. However, the idealization of Hippokrates is also a weakness among people who do trust Western science. For example, in a 2020 BBC article (published while Boris Johnson was hospitalized for COVID), Armand D’Angour juxtaposes Hippokrates with ancient quacks and aligns him with modern biomedicine. Therefore “it may be that Hippocrates will come to [Johnson’s] mind, as well as Pericles and Thucydides,” D’Angour proposes.
“it may be that Hippocrates will come to [Boris Johnson’s] mind, as well as Pericles and Thucydides...” (Armand D'Angour)
Academics and journalists across different fields and perspectives feed this tendency by valorizing Hippokrates as a hero for our time. Science writer Adam Voiland opens a 2020 feature for NASA by using Hippokratic ideas to suggest that COVID-19 may weaken in the summer (though epidemiologists at the time already had declared seasonal variability to be, at most, minor transmission factor). A series of editorials in The American Journal of Bioethics (one of which is named “Don’t Blame Hippocrates for Low Enrollment in Clinical Trials”) use Hippokratic injunctions to debate the risks of clinical COVID-19 research. Sometimes, however, Hippokratic medicine is cited as junk science or patently absurd. In a 2020 article for The Conversation, English professor David Roberts lists “light[ing] bonfires” and “throw[ing] herbs and spices” as patently Hippokratic remedies for plague (an apocryphal claim). The article was written in response to Donald Trump’s recommendation to ingest bleach as a cure for COVID, to humanize Trump by casting him in “the long line of those who, desperately seeking real cures, have found fakes.” Even when a Hippokratic therapy is in hindsight recognized as a “fake,” the cultural authority of Hippokratic medicine as a whole remains upheld as a symbol for scientific medicine.
Image: WHO Infographic warning against drinking methanol, ethanol, or bleach to prevent or cure COVID-19. World Health Organization COVID-19 Mythbusters. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.
In the face of such receptions, what is one to do? Both conceptions—Hippokrates as founder of scientific medicine, Hippokrates as founder of anti-science movements—derive their normative power from using the physician’s name and maxims as a fount of wisdom. None of these think pieces actually engage with the strange, diverse set of texts and ideas that comprise ancient medicine. It remains to be seen what public scholarly engagement with ancient medicine’s weirdness might look like.
Instead, there’s a tendency to overestimate the capacity of Classics, and academia in general, to inoculate against misinformation and bigotry. While the humanities certainly have the ability to cultivate “critical thinking,” thinking critically is not necessarily thinking ethically — nor is it immune to weaponization, as shown by the humanities degrees of many reactionary politicians from elite institutions. In the case of the pandemic, consider also the example of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a theorist of biopolitics who remains influential among left-wing academics. Since 2020, Agamben has on multiple occasions called COVID a state-manufactured hoax and compared COVID-19 precautions such as facemasks and vaccination to the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust—a comparison he shares with the far-right conspiracy theorist and US Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene.
At the core of this issue lie questions of appropriation and exceptionalism. Well-intentioned attempts to correct the record and restore the ancients’ “original” texts and ideas will never be as radical as they seem. Trying to purify lazy, harmful, or simply misguided receptions of medical material through pedantry is, to quote Holly Ranger, merely “the white will to power expressed in the desire to claim Daddy’s authority for oneself.”* We can’t trade Bad Hippokrates (what the Hippokratics didn’t say, or we wish they didn’t) for Good Hippokrates (who does not exist). Nor can we disavow the ambiguity of the act of receiving classical ideas, with all their baggage included.
If pandemics are indeed portals “to break with the past,” as Arundhati Roy has suggested, and “gateway[s] between one world and the next,” what worlds could historians of medicine, responding to the pandemic, create? Rightly, COVID-19 has forced scholars of ancient medicine to admit that our professional reflexes, methods, and assumptions do not always meet the demands of the moment. What, then, is the study of ancient medicine for? I would argue that dismantling the exceptionalism of classical material is one place to start.
*Ranger, H. "Critical Reception Studies: The White Feminism of Feminist Reception Studies," presented at: The Case for Critical Ancient World Studies. University of Oxford, September 7, 2020.
Bratton, B. (2021.) “Agamben WTF, or How Philosophy Failed the Pandemic.” Verso Books Blog.
Chae, Y.I. (2020.) “Classics Will Not Save Us.” Eidolon.
King, H. (2019.) Hippocrates Now: The “Father of Medicine” in the Internet Age. London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.
Maintenance Phase. (2021.) “The Wellness to QAnon Pipeline.”
Morley, N. (2013.) “Thucydides Quote Unquote.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 20, PP. 9–36.
Roy, A. (2020.) “The Pandemic is a Portal.” The Financial Times.
What is it about Hippocrates that allows him to be used as a figurehead across biomedical science, holistic medicine, and anti-science (e.g. anti-vaccination) movements? Are there other ancient figures or texts that are manipulated in this way?
Why are "wellness" communities so closely connected to conspiracy communities? What are the precise areas of their overlap?
Is it a problem that Hippocrates sometimes represents a "prelapsarian" state of healing practice? What does "prelapsarian" mean when it comes to medicine? Why would a legendary figure from Classical Greece hold this kind of "prelapsarian" status?
Can and should professional Classicists get involved in popular receptions or appropriations of Classical material? Should anyone be checking whether Classical material is being used "properly"? What are the possible consequences of making or failing to make this kind of intervention?