Medicine, Health, and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean (500 BCE-600 CE) is a new sourcebook that provides an expansive picture of medical and healing practices in ancient Greece and Rome for students and readers interested in the rich history of health and healthcare. We sat down with one of the authors, Kristi Upson-Saia, Professor of Religious Studies at Occidental College and co-Founder of ReMeDHe, to discuss the importance of teaching the history of pre-modern medicine and why the new sourcebook is a valuable new resource to faculty.

Additional reading: Please enjoy access to a special issue from the Studies in Late Antiquity journal, guest edited by Kristi Upson-Saia.

Your sourcebook was published just in time for the Fall semester. Why should faculty at colleges and universities teach courses on the history of medicine?

Courses on pre-modern medicine have exploded in popularity in recent years for a few reasons. Medical schools want students who have been exposed to ethics and history of medicine courses, so science departments are sending their majors our way. This demand from the medical field and growing alliances with our science colleagues has led to higher enrollments and been a boon to Humanities departments needing to justify their standing at their institutions.

But beyond these instrumental reasons, students interested in careers in medicine have a lot to learn from history. In the first chapter of the book, we spend some time explaining why students should supplement their study of anatomy, chemistry, and biology with courses in the history of medicine. We set out to demonstrate how much of modern medical practice draws its roots from the ancient Mediterranean. For example, medical ethics and oaths, bedside manner, diagnostic procedures, medical histories and “charts,” the staged, mentor-centered structure of medical training, “rounds,” etc. Thus students who have studied the past will better understand these foundational aspects of medical practice.

Additionally, we argue, studying medicine from a different time and context can sensitize us to new perspectives that are not always at the front of our minds. For instance, in sources from the ancient Mediterranean, we encounter patients’ fears, worries, and anxieties. We see that patients did not always trust their physicians and often refused to follow physicians’ orders. We see how sick and suffering people sought healing from family, friends, temples, magicians, community healers, and tradespeople, in addition to or instead of from physicians. And we see physicians fretting about the myriad challenges they faced too. Studying the past, then, attunes us to patient-centered concerns, preferences, and agency, to nonmedical domains of healing, and to patients and physicians as whole people—issues that are still relevant to medical practice today even if they are not part of most medical curricula.

When designing this sourcebook, you wanted to make it accessible for faculty who didn’t already have expertise in ancient Mediterranean medicine and for faculty who had never taught a course in the history of pre-modern medicine. Tell us more about the features of the sourcebook that make it easy to teach.

The sourcebook opens with three highly-readable introductory chapters. The first chapter sets out to convince readers that they should want to study the history of medicine, and it also orients them to the landscape of the field (i.e. the kinds of sources scholars make use of and the methodological approaches we use in our studies). The second chapter provides a succinct overview of important people and developments in ancient Mediterranean medicine. The third chapter describes the living conditions of the ancient Mediterranean that impacted health. These three chapters lay the foundation for the thematic chapters that follow.

In the rest of the book, we include a number of resources to help students navigate the material. Each of the thematic chapters include what we call headnotes, our framing introduction to the topic and texts of the chapter. We also include a glossary of important terms, an index of important people, and a timeline.

Most importantly, for faculty new to the field or new to teaching courses on ancient Mediterranean medicine, we have amassed a wonderful instructors guide that includes reading questions, experiential learning exercises, assignment prompts, key terms, and further reading for each chapter. We’ve even created a couple of sample syllabi that instructors are free to adapt!

As faculty begin using the sourcebook, we’d love to hear from them so we can keep updating the instructors’ guide with even more pedagogical materials!

Faculty teaching courses on pre-modern medicine often complain that existing textbooks and sourcebooks are dry, failing to capture student interest. Why do you think students will be attracted to your sourcebook?

In part, we sought to make our sourcebook attractive by simply highlighting the fascinating ideas, practices, and sources that drew all of us to the subfield. For example, the use of urine and pulse in ancient diagnosis, the ancient theories of “women’s” ailments, notions of miasma. We also center the perspectives of sick and suffering people that might resonate with contemporary readers’ own experience of illness. For example, our chapter on the epidemics will likely elicit readers’ own experiences living through COVID-19. And, finally, we’ve included topics that will be useful to aspiring medical professionals, such as a wonderful source written by Rufus of Ephesus on the importance of questioning patients, and a Hippocratic source that details “bedside manner.” 

In addition to covering an array of interesting topics, we have also worked hard to include an array of materials. We assembled a talented translation team who created highly-readable translations of 47 ancient texts (some of which are translated into English for the first time!), supplemented by non-textual sources, such as artistic works, material artifacts, archaeological sites, and scientific evidence. From this assortment of materials, every reader will surely find something that captures their unique interest!

Tell us about how this project emerged from the international scholarly working group, ReMeDHe.

In 2013, Heidi Marx and I founded ReMeDHe, a working group of scholars interested in the study of Religion, Medicine, Disability, and Health, prompted by our desire to build a supportive scholarly community that pushed the methodological sophistication of our field. This group has been one of the true joys of our professional careers because of its vibrancy, intellectual generosity, and collaborative nature.

Our sourcebook has benefited deeply from this community and from collaboration. From the conception of the sourcebook contents, through drafting and revising of chapters, through the assembling of our translation team, to the creation of the instructors’ guide, we consistently reached out to colleagues for advice and direction. And, when the enormity of the project overwhelmed us, ReMeDHe colleagues buoyed us with their encouragement and support. We truly couldn’t have completed this project without our scholarly colleagues!