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Research Group ‘Kairos, Krisis, Rhythmos.

Time and Time Awareness in Ancient Medicine’

Prof. Dr. Philip van der Eijk, HU Berlin
Dr. Glen M. Cooper, FU Berlin

Dr. Orly Lewis, HUJI

MPhil, Dr. Christine F. Salazar, HU Berlin

Dr. Sean Coughlin, HU Berlin

Dr. Peter N Singer, BBK


Time is of the essence in medicine, and doctors in the ancient world were acutely aware of this. The famous first Hippocratic Aphorism, which sums up what medicine is all about, contains three references to time: the brevity of human life in comparison to the length of time and experience it takes to master the art of medicine; the fleeting nature of ‘opportunity’ (kairos), the right time for medical intervention; and the difficulty of the doctor’s ‘judgement’ (krisis), often to be made under great time pressure in the face of the rapidly changing condition of the patient.

In ancient medical thought, the human body and its functioning was believed to be subject to specific time cycles, intervals and rhythms, such as the pulse; and irregularities in these rhythms were believed to provide significant clues for diagnosis and prognosis. Many pathological phenomena were thought to manifest themselves in fixed time sequences, such as the periodic fevers mentioned in the case histories of the Hippocratic Epidemics, or symptoms occurring at particular ‘critical’ days in the course of a disease. These symptoms had to be observed at the right time, or at the right moment between time intervals, or over the right period of time, in order to cast a correct and accurate prognosis; and treatment had to be applied at the right, critical moment, or for the correct length of time. But what counted as right or correct, and how it should be determined, was subject to difference of opinion among the experts.

Ancient medical texts show a rich and fascinating discourse on time, timing and time management, which was characterised by diversity of ideas and methods, debate and competition between rival medical thinkers and schools, and by development and change in theory and practice over time.

This project examines the role of time and time awareness in Graeco-Roman and Islamicate medicine, with a particular emphasis on Galen and the Galenic tradition but also on writers with whom Galen strongly disagreed, such as the Pneumatist doctors Athenaeus and Archigenes and the Peripatetic philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias. The project will focus on two themes: (i) ideas and practices related to the pulse, its measurement, its diagnostic significance and therapeutic management, and its relationship to other rhythmical movements in the body, such as respiration, tremor and various kinds of heart-beat; (ii) the concepts of crisis, critical days and periodic fevers and their role in ancient ideas about health, disease and medical prognosis.

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