Immerse Yourself in Medicine's History

September 16, 2008
Eric G. Anderson, MD

Physician's Money Digest, June30 2003, Volume 10, Issue 12

American doctors, who have toiled a lifetimein the trenches, haven't been favoredwith the sabbaticals that benefit some academics,or the long summer vacations enjoyed byEuropean physicians. They have very little timeduring their working lives for exciting adventure.Come retirement, however, many dreams ofexotic travel become possible.

Suddenly that grand tour of Europe, flightaround the world, and cruise to Antarctica becomerealitistic opportunities. Even better, doctorscan finally live out the ultimate physicianfantasy and visit the land where medicine started24 centuries ago: the home of Hippocrates onthe Greek island of Kos (www.kos.gr).

ADVENTUROUS FLIGHTS

The plane from Athens to Kos fills up quickly,and is its own adventure. Bronzed blondes jabberingin German, British tourists sweating in theirheavy clothes, young Greek couples incessantlysmoking, island families returning after a day in thecity, and exhausted babies crying in their mothers'arms are the usual backdrop on this flight.

You'll find that the cast of characters on boardare as interesting as the eventual destination.Elderly men feel their way slowly down the aircraftcorridor, carrying crumpled cardboard boxesbound in twine, or dragging plastic bags incongruouslylabeled "Camel Cigarettes" or "Dewar'sWhiskey" stuffed with newspapers, rugs, and jackets.Thin women are dressed in the widow's blackthat they'll wear for the next 40 years.

Where else can you see a Greek priest pauseon his way to his seat to permit a woman to kisshis hand, or a German tourist laden with themost expensive photographic equipment sold 40years ago around his neck—all stainless steel andgleaming? Where else could you listen to 2Spaniards, inches apart, shouting incoherently ateach other? You're in for quite a ride before youeven arrive on the island.

MEDICINE'S ISLAND

In the Greek Archeological Museum in Kos,the floor is one of its treasures. A mosaic transferredfrom a Roman villa in the ancient part oftown, the floor shows Asklepios, the god of healing,arriving on the shores of Kos and being welcomedby Hippocrates. Created about 500 yearsafter Hippocrates' death, the museum's floor isone of the few illustrations of medicine's founder.

Beyond the Roman courtyard stands a dramaticstatue from the Hellenistic period (300 to100 BC). Exposed in a 1933 earthquake, the statueis bathed in a deep green light and seems tostare into the distance. No one knows for certainwhether this is a statue of Hippocrates or anotherancient Greek figure. It's also not known for certainif the Asklepieion, the temple of healing, waserected in homage to him (or even whether thevenerable plane tree under which Hippocratessupposedly sat is an accurate historic site).

TEMPLE OF HEALING

naiskos

The Asklepieion consists of 3 terraces that arespread across the cypress grove on the lowerslopes of Mt. Oromedont. The first terrace, theentrance, originally contained health spas, bathhouses, and fountains from nearby springs. Aclimb of 30 steps leads to the second level, whereyou'll pass the foundation of a (ie, a smalltemple) dedicated to the emperor Nero by thephysician Xenophon.

The middle terrace contains the foundation ofthe altar of Asklepios, built between 350 and 330BC, the earliest symbolic structure left on the hill.On the west side of the altar is the Temple ofAsklepios, built in the third century BC to housethe gifts and tributes that the sick brought theirpriest-physicians. To the east is another temple,constructed by the Romans after the earthquake of142, and dedicated to Apollo.

Sixty more marble steps bring you to the foundationof the huge temple of the upper terrace,which was built in the second century BC and has104 Doric columns around its 340-foot perimeter.The Knights of St. John chose to use parts of thisantique temple for fortification against theOttoman Turks. Little of value remains, and localssay what did survive has been carried off over theyears to Istanbul, Rome, and Berlin.

Still, when you stand on the upper level andlook over the cypresses to the fertile fields andthe town of Kos, and beyond the turquoise seato the coastline of Turkey, you get the sense thatyour own career is validated and that your lifework is complete. For more information onKos, visit www.hippocrates.gr and www.greekislands.com/kos.