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Medical Modernities: Panel in the Society of Classical Studies 156th Annual Meeting

Panel Sponsored by the Society for Ancient Medicine

Society of Classical Studies 156th Annual Meeting

When reflecting on the causes for the errors in Galen’s writings, the medieval Islamicate physician-philosopher Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (d. c. 925 CE) proposes in his Doubts about Galen (Koetschet 2019) that the ‘arts never cease progressing towards and approaching perfection’. Additional discoveries, he continues, are more easily reached because ‘what took the ancients a long time to find out comes to their successors very quickly’. Al-Rāzī seems to be exceptional in his forthrightness about the advantages contemporary, or ‘modern’, physicians have over their forebearers in the practice of their craft. There is a rich body of scholarship (e.g., von Staden 2009; Tieleman 2023) that has tracked how past Greco-Roman doctors such as Galen himself choose to align themselves with famous precursors, notably Hippocrates and Plato, to construct their expertise, even when their own theories respond critically to these authorities. This panel invites papers that consider how physicians across time and in various antiquities mobilize the medical past to define their contribution to their respective medical tradition(s). Papers could, for example, focus on how ancient doctors position themselves in relation to their modern contemporaries as opposed to past practitioners. For instance, a contribution could contextualize the Hippocratic writers’ own understandings of medicine’s capacity to be completed in relation to other fifth-century BCE notions of the nature of ‘art’ (technē). A more expansive approach might pursue how medical traditions construct their ‘modernity’ against the perceived past of ‘Others’, such as Greek modernity as opposed to Egyptian antiquity. Alternatively, a general line of inquiry could explore how doctors conceive of medicine’s chronology: what constitutes the medical past, present, and future?; is it a closed tradition capable of reaching perfection, as al-Rāzī suggests, or is it open-ended? We also encourage submissions that approach this topic from a presentist angle: how do biomedical practitioners today invoke the medical past in their archaeologies of certain diseases or methodologies? Along this line, papers could tackle the ethically fraught issue of retrospective diagnosis, where modern physicians or historians attempt to interpret in biomedical terms what ancient actors suffered from based on (primarily) textual and material evidence. What pedagogical purpose does retrospective diagnosis serve, if any, in the teaching of the medical past? How is retrospective diagnosis an outcome of modern divisions in the academy: does this type of scholarship replicate disciplinary silos, in which doctors and historians produce their own separate histories of medicine, or encourage new disciplinary configurations?

Abstracts must be no more than 500 words, not including bibliography, and should contain the following information:

  • a clear initial statement of purpose,
  • a brief explanation of the abstract’s relationship to the previous literature on the topic, including direct citations of any important literature
  • a summary of the argumentation
  • some examples to be used in the argumentation.

The abstract should make it clear that the paper is suitable for oral presentation within a 20-minute time limit. For full details, please see the SCS Guidelines for Authors of Abstracts.

Please send anonymized abstracts (no personal details in the abstract or accompanying document) by email to Aileen Das (University of Michigan) at ardas@umich.edu by March 15, 2024. The organizers will review all submissions anonymously, and their decision will be communicated to the authors of abstracts by April 5, 2024.