by Helen King and Jo Brown
Taking the name of Hippocrates in vain… It happens all the time. When you work on any historical topic it inevitably involves some moments of screaming at the TV set. History programmes are popular viewing, and history is always being mentioned in other documentaries even when it’s not very relevant to the main argument.
The internet Hippocrates?
We’ve been doing some work on how the name of ‘Hippocrates’ is still being used to sell products – alternative medicine, weird diets, and now … watercress. Sometimes this involves picking a phrase from one of the 70 or so treatises associated with the Greek doctor Hippocrates; who, despite the casual name-dropping by those trying to cash in on his fame, probably wrote none of the texts of what we call the ‘Hippocratic corpus’. Then that phrase is taken out of context, and becomes almost a mantra. Examples would be ‘Let food be thy medicine’ (probably an elaboration of an extremely unclear ‘Hippocratic’ phrase), ‘first do no harm’ and ‘nature is the best physician’ (probably derives from a phrase in Epidemics VI). Just put any of these phrases into Google search or Twitter, and see what appears.
The watercress claims
So there was a certain amount of screaming at a recent episode of Channel 4’s “Food Unwrapped”. For those of you from outside the UK, this TV series ‘travels the world to uncover the truth about the food we eat’.
This episode included a feature on the health benefits of watercress. Dr Steve Rothwell, owner of ‘Vitacress’, is asked by the presenter about why he thinks watercress is so good. He responds:
“People have known about it for a long time. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, when he built the world’s first hospital, he built it by a fast-flowing stream because he wanted to grow watercress which he deemed essential to the care of his patients. And it’s really the last sort of hundred years, that we’ve valued the taste and texture of eating watercress.”
Now Dr Rothwell may know a lot about growing watercress, but as historians we went into shock at the number of myths about Hippocrates being repeated here! Hippocrates as not just ‘father of medicine’ – a relatively old title – but father of modern medicine? Hippocrates as having built the world’s first hospital? Claims about the location of this (imaginary!) hospital? And finally, Hippocratic endorsement of watercress?
The myth of this first hospital next to a watercress bed is surprisingly ubiquitous. All over the internet, as sites copy other sites, it turns up in much the same wording as that used by Rothwell, for instance here or here or here…
Sometimes the myth includes a date – Hippocrates did this ‘in 400 BC’, an attempt, perhaps, to anchor the myth in an accessible chronology, to a date with a clear round number. However, for someone about whom so little is known, the use of so exact a date is nothing but misleading.
What do we mean by watercress?
Watercress is nasturtium officinale; it is native to Europe and to Asia. Some websites will tell you that the Greek for watercress is ‘kardamon’ (κάρδαμον); but this is not certain.
Kardamon isn’t watercress, but garden cress, the Latin lepidum sativum. Within the texts associated with the name of Hippocrates, garden cress seeds feature almost exclusively in the Hippocratic gynecological treatises, where they are part of a softening remedy for the mouth of the uterus, and are used to expel the fetus.
In one of the rare uses outside the gynecological texts, in the treatise On Ulcers the leaves of ‘narrow-leaved kardamon’ are used to fill an ulcer. Perhaps the ancient Greeks called both plants kardamon, but even if we include all the kardamon references we still don’t find anything that matches the internet myths.
Food for soldiers or food for failures?
Another story about it that circulates on the internet is that ‘The ancient Greek general, and the Persian king Xerxes ordered their soldiers to eat Watercress to keep them healthy’ What’s the evidence for this? Revealingly, some sites introduce the Xerxes story with ‘folklore has it that…’ But we can do a bit better than this. ‘The’ ancient Greek general here is named on other sites as Xenophon. The reference (which none of the sites gives) is actually to Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus 1.2.8.
But the story is nothing to do with soldiers! Instead, it is about Persian ways of bringing up children so that they will learn self-restraint: “Furthermore, they bring from home bread for their food, cress for a relish, and for drinking, if any one is thirsty, a cup to draw water from the river.” Further on, at 1.2.11, cress is described as food for failures: “Those of this age have for relish the game that they kill; if they fail to kill any, then cresses”.
Common to all these internet references seems to be one assumption: that if an ancient precedent can be found for the use of a plant, this is proof of the plant’s efficacy in medicine. After all, Dr Rothwell’s comments about Hippocrates’ approval of watercress were in answer to a question about the plant’s qualities, not about its history. And it seems unlikely that he would take up Hippocratic injunctions to chop up cress leaves and put them on to a skin ulcer.
Internet myths about Hippocrates and watercress won’t be affected by anything we’ve said here. Myths take on lives of their own. Maybe the only thing we can all agree on is that watercress is peppery-tasting, and nice in salads, or as a garnish for chicken!