A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome

J.C. McKeown. Oxford Univ., $18.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-19-061043-2
McKeown, professor of classics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and compiler of A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities and A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities, goes for a weird-but-true trifecta with this compilation of medical oddities from ancient Western civilizations, delivering a frightening, puzzling, thoughtful, and surprisingly engrossing survey. As well organized as it is erudite, the compendium tilts toward classics enthusiasts, but there’s still plenty of material to amaze an audience outside the ivory tower. McKeown writes that his “chief aspiration is to provide glimpses into the world of medicine in the distant past that offer entertainment rather than enlightenment.” That isn’t quite true, of course. There is plenty of medical knowledge from antiquity recorded here that remains relevant in modernity. But those nuggets are far outnumbered by data that boggles the mind, or at least phenomena that seems ridiculous in the world of 21st-century medicine: a prescription for donkey’s milk; the birth defect of a “hairy heart”; a disturbing catalogue of diseases outlined by Plutarch; and an astounding array of animal-based medicine touted in Dioscorides’s Medical Material, including goat dung plasters and boiled viper meat. McKeown’s well-organized and erudite survey is fascinating and enlightening, though best consumed in small doses. Illus. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 10/24/2016
Release date: 01/01/2017
Genre: Nonfiction
Hardcover - 978-0-19-061044-9
Hardcover - 978-0-19-061045-6
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