Although he could be a court physician in Macedonia, Hippocrates has returned to the island of Cos, at least temporarily, to take over his dead father's practice. He is summoned to the villa of a wealthy citizen to consult on the fits of a daughter of the house. Using precise clinical observation, he diagnoses hysteria instead of epilepsy. Then, he relates the girl's psychological problems to the neglect of her selfish and adulterous mother, Olympias, who prefers her handsome, athletic, but rather dense (and as it turns out, illegitimate) son, Cleomedes.

A marriage is to be arranged with Cleomedes's obsession, Daphne, the exquisitely beautiful and intelligent daughter of a physician from Cnidus. But Daphne falls in love with Hippocrates, and he with her. In between solving clinical problems, including a real case of epilepsy, a botched abortion, and a broken hip in his own grandmother, Hippocrates is led along a tangled path of intrigue, seduction, and false accusations.

A fire destroys the medical library of Cnidus, killing Cleomedes, who, for once in his life had risen to heroism in attempting to save an invalid woman and her son. When the newly orphaned child reveals that Olympias and her old lover have committed arson, Olympias leaps from the highest wall to her death. Hippocrates is now free to marry Daphne. Adopting the child as their own, they return to the island of Cos.


This melodramatic novel is fascinating for two reasons: first, it is the late-career work of one of the best known neurosurgeons of the twentieth century; second, it has cleverly woven the essence of many passages from the Hippocratic Corpus into its gripping but soapy narrative. The product of research, travel, and a considerable amount of imagination, Penfield's novel tries to reconstruct a plausible account of events in the fifth century B.C. to explain the eventual dominance of one medical sect over another, the loss of manuscripts, and the origin of certain practices, especially dictums against surgery and abortion.

His clinician's appreciation of Hippocratic wisdom shines through, but only with mixed success. Most effective are the evening lessons of the Asclepiads under the famous courtyard tree (Penfield makes it a "palm" tree). At times, however, the author projects an unacceptably anachronistic foresight onto his hero, while his use of primary texts is occasionally laughable, e.g. when this younger version of the "Old Man of Cos" spouts famous aphorisms--"life is short, the art is long"--as he trips hand in hand with Daphne through the meadow flowers.

The behavior and appearance of the women; the jealousies; the concepts of love, courtship, marriage, revenge, honor; and the sullied rewards of dishonesty, have more to do with 1950's North American Protestantism than they do with antiquity. But the work is an easy read, and, partly because of its author's distinguished reputation, it stimulated a generation of medical students and physicians to examine the original works of Hippocrates.


Little, Brown

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