12 Days of Books – Greek and Roman Medicine, and constipation

By Helen King (W&M Contributor)

I don’t know how you cope with deadlines: I am a lapsed perfectionist, so I’ve learned just to watch them sailing by. Some are real, some are imaginary. Telling the difference can be a challenge. Sometimes I’ve worked flat out to meet one, only to find that none of the other contributors to the project has bothered. Sometimes I’ve chosen to ignore one, only to get anguished messages from the editors of the project letting me know that I am the one person being sent to the Naughty Step.

So, Greek and Roman Medicine. I had a contract to do this little book for about 5 years before I actually wrote it. Deadlines sailed by into the sunset. The series editor was lovely about it. You may be wondering by now – what was it that galvanised me into action?

It was constipation. No, not my own. I was in the Netherlands at a wonderful place called the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies, where my target was to finish off another book, The Disease of Virgins. I had reorganised the entire plan of this and had decided to focus each chapter on a different explanation for this disorder. One of the chapters was on digestive causes and blockages. I thought to myself, ‘Surely someone somewhere has written a history of constipation? I really can’t get on with this book without some sort of overview of the topic!’ I googled, as you do, and found one. But it had only been published very recently. There wasn’t a copy in the Netherlands, in any of the libraries to which I had access. I’d need to buy one from the UK.

Problem: three week delivery time.

So what could I do? No point resuming another chapter – all the wrong questions were spinning round in my head. And then I remembered – the book I always ignored, the long-contracted Greek and Roman Medicine.

Suddenly, it all made sense. I just sat down, and wrote. This was going to be an introductory book, so no footnotes to worry about. It was going to end with some questions the reader could ask herself, or the teacher could set for his students. It needed to summarise the state of play in scholarship on the subject, but in an accessible way. Two weeks later, I had a manuscript. And this is where things started to go very well indeed. At NIAS, I was part of a small theme group on Greek and Babylonian Medicine. So I gave my manuscript to everyone in it, and also to friends and to family. Everyone read it really quickly and got back to me with comments ranging from ‘This paragraph does not follow logically from that one’ to ‘You need more on…’ to ‘You need less on…’ I turned those around, and sent it off. Success.

And then my constipation problem was solved.


    • Helen King says

      I am a very bad person and didn’t get around to the random decision til now – plus I went away for Christmas for a whole week (highly recommended!). You are the winner – well done!

  1. esr says

    As an almost retired senior citizen physician, I now understand what my patients have been complaining about all these years!!! Maybe this ‘disorder’ has now “come home to ROOST!!” Would LOVE to have a signed copy and read more!!

  2. librarypat says

    It seems avoidance is a good incentive for writing. I am glad you finished this book. Considering the time period and the cultures it covers, it should be interesting. Question, did you ever find enough information to finish THE DISEASE OF VIRGINS?

    • says

      Yes, I did – so it was worth the wait! Although the history of constipation I read was very much about the 19th c and was tying the obsession with the condition to industrialisation and the interest in the body as a sort of factory, whereas I was mostly looking at earlier history. Still very useful though!

  3. Lynn McAfee says

    I’m always fascinated by the ancient Greeks, especially the development of their medical knowledge. And let’s face it, sooner or later we all have an interest in information about constipation!

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