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Aesculapius, My Story


My father was a god; my grandfather was a god. My aunt killed my mother, and my grandfather plans on killing me. I guess you might call us a dysfunctional family. Some people also say I am a god, but I don’t see it that way. There’s no accounting for what people believe in. The ancient Greeks and Romans liked to make up stories about me; sometimes even I am not sure what is truth and what is fiction. I thought I’d take this chance to tell you about myself. If you are a modern-day proponent of the healing arts, perhaps you will find this of interest.

Dear Old Dad

My father was Apollo, son of Jupiter. He wasn’t a great dad; he was more interested in his godly duties and romantic liaisons than in my upbringing. My mother was a nymph named Coronis. I never met her. She was obviously beautiful and alluring; it’s a nymph thing. She met Apollo, and they spent many happy days in the olive groves. I was conceived on a beautiful hillside above the Aegean Sea.

Apollo soon lost interest in Coronis; he was busy with the family business: causing plagues, driving the chariot of fire across the sky, and so on. Coronis discovered she was pregnant and met a heroic mortal, Ischys; together, they tried to start a new life. There was no way Apollo was going to go along with this. No one leaves a god; it’s supposed to be the other way around. Apollo killed the mortal Ischys and had his sister Diana shoot an arrow into Coronis’ heart. As my mother’s body burned on a funeral pyre, Apollo had a fit of remorse and cut me from my mother’s womb—the first of what would eventually be called cesarean sections. Welcome to my life.

The Early Years

My home was on Mount Pelion. Chiron, a centaur, was my nanny and mentor. He was an expert hunter and was well versed in medicine and music. He was always horsing around. His daughter, Ocyrhoe, prophesied that I would become a great healer; with my heritage, it seemed a safe bet. When Chiron died, years later, Jupiter placed him in the sky; you might recognize him as Sagittarius. One day, millennia later, a company would take his name and would have trouble making influenza vaccine. I grew up under his tutelage and, in time, became an adequate healer myself.

The Wife and Kids

When I grew older, it was time to take a wife. I found a woman with an interest in botanicals. Her name was Epione. We had many children together, but things eroded in our relationship after that. It might have been a postpartum thing, or maybe I spent too much time at work. I’ll never know. She became more interested in soporifics—mandrake especially. She started spending a lot of time in her cave. She and Bacchus were always sitting around our home partying and listening to Pluto’s underworld band, The Dead, and enjoying their favorite song, “The Deadly Nightshade.”

I did pretty well with my children; they all went into the family healing business. My first daughter was named Hygeia. She was always by my side and a great help in my practice. She specialized in preventing disease. My second daughter was Panacea. She was pretty good with a cure and was always in high demand. She started hanging around with some chick named Placebo. Her name in Latin means “I will please,” and she always did. Two of my sons, Machaon and Podalirius, became naval surgeons; one was wounded at Troy but survived. My third son, Telosophorus, was born a dwarf and specialized in rehabilitation.

The earliest places of healing were temples of Aesculapius; the latros, who worked there, were the earliest physicians. Yes, they did make me a god, but it’s not like I could stop them.

Things Take a Turn for the Worse

Life was going pretty well until I was lured into the shadowy realms of life and death. I had always believed that if the gods decided a patient was to get better, then I must use my skill to aid in this endeavor. If the Fates had decreed a patient was to die, there was little I could do against the will of the gods. Then events occurred that would enable me to take things to a whole new level, and—once again—it was because of sex.

Theseus was the king of Athens. He became king when his father committed suicide, thinking wrongly that Theseus was dead. This was not an auspicious start for a ruler. When Theseus’ first wife died, he married the princess Phaedra, daughter of the Cretan King Minos—a truly freaky chick. Theseus had a grown son, Hippolytus, who had rugged good looks and a bright future, a real stud. Phaedra decided Hippolytus would be a better husband for her than his father, but Hippolytus spurned her advances. Phaedra, in her wrath, turned Theseus against his son. Theseus used his own godly contacts and convinced Neptune to deal with Hippolytus. While Hippolytus was driving a chariot along a coastal road, Neptune set a sea monster to rise up from the ocean, scaring Theseus’ horse, which led to a fatal crash.

The goddess Diana, my aunt, came to me and taught me the secret to reviving the dead. Don’t expect me to share it with you. No “see one, do one, teach one” from me. I’ll just say it involves very small thunderbolts. I would have been better off without the knowledge. Using the new technique, I revived Hippolytus, who spent the rest of his days in Italy with a water nymph named Egeria. Not a bad afterlife. My trouble, on the other hand, had just begun. Pluto, god of the underworld, was furious. He thought no man should remove the dead from his realm. It was a classic turf battle, and I lost. Jupiter, my grandfather, was forced to put me to death with a thunderbolt.

Life after Death

My name lived on. The earliest places of healing were temples of Aesculapius; the Iatros, who worked there, were the earliest physicians. Yes, they did make me a god, but it’s not like I could stop them. On the island of Kós, my thousandth grandson was named Hippocrates—you may have heard of him. Another of my descendants, Galen, trained at my temple in Pergamon.

It’s been a few thousand years since all of this happened. Don’t ask how you can be reading my words—it’s a mythology thing. Things did not go well for Apollo after I died. When he heard I had been killed, my father lost his temper and took out his wrath on the cyclops who had made Jupiter’s thunderbolts on Mount Aetna. His punishment for that temper tantrum was to serve a mortal, Admetus, for a year. Admetus fell ill; near death, he convinced Apollo to appeal to the Fates. They agreed that someone would take his place. Nobody in the kingdom volunteered for this duty, not even his elderly parents. Finally his wife Alcestis volunteered, and her fate was set. When Death came for her, Hercules, who was passing through, seized Death and would not let him go until she was spared.

Lessons from the Past

You, the modern hospitalist, may read this tale and wonder what it has to do with modern-day medicine and why it is in this publication. Perhaps the Fates have had their way with the medical editor—hence this topic in this publication. Some parts of the tale are of etymological interest: Panacea, Hygeia, Iatros, Aesculapius, Chiron, and Aetna, to name a few. The bigger issue is the question of how your medical forefathers looked at life and death. Perhaps a patient might be healed, but if not, it was the gods’ will. Death was not easily cheated. Ademetus was saved by his wife’s sacrifice; she was willing to donate her life for his. There is something in this tale about futile resuscitation as well. And of course, the most important message: It never pays to get involved in sex or politics. TH

Dr. Newman is the physician editor of The Hospitalist. He’s also consultant, Hospital Internal Medicine, and assistant professor of internal medicine and medical history, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, Minn.

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