Ancient and modern

The ancient problem of unscrupulous ‘doctors’

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

Yet again ‘doctors’ with no qualifications have been found advertising dodgy but expensive products and treatments, in this case, injections of unregulated Botox variants to remove wrinkles. Pliny the Elder (d. ad 79) inveighed against such practices 2,000 years ago.

Romans had a love-hate relationship with the Greeks, and medicine was no exception. In his massive Naturalis Historia — a 36-book encyclopaedia of the animal, vegetable and mineral world — Pliny acknowledged the enormous influence of Greek medical theory, i.e. that health required a balance between the four bodily liquids (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) and their many associated ‘powers’ in matching groups of four (e.g. heat, cold, wetness, dryness; air, fire, earth, water; spring, summer, autumn, winter, etc).


But that, he argues, was no match for practical, proven Roman remedies (forget theory) supplied by nature herself, ‘available everywhere, easily discovered and costing nothing’. And off he goes at enormous length, singing the virtues of herbal medicine and of letting the divine power of Natura have its way.

By contrast, for Pliny, the complexity of Greek theory simply encouraged doctors to ‘hunt for popularity by means of novel remedies’ with the result that ‘the art of medicine changes daily and is constantly given a new look; we are carried away on the hot air of those clever Greeks’. Because of the trust placed in these doctors, such experiments were encouraged, and the cost to Romans, Pliny claims, was in their lives (‘only a doctor can commit homicide with such impunity’), while ‘the precious things of nature have been quite lost’.

The motive behind all this, Pliny goes on, was money. He quotes the vast sums made by ‘unscrupulous practitioners out to make a quick profit’, with which ‘each customer is promised a new lease of life — at a price’. The result was a culture that ‘allowed good men to give authority to the worst, while stupid people were convinced that nothing could be considered beneficial unless it cost a fortune’.

Are we quite out of these woods yet?

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