Ancient and modern

What the NHS does now, Babylon did first

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

Financial constraints combined with a shortage of staff have brought the NHS to a situation so desperate that it is proposing that doctors treat patients, not one by one, but in groups of 15 or more. It is good to see the NHS finally catching up with the cutting-edge thinking of the ancient Babylonians. Let the great Greek historian Herodotus (c. 490-c. 425 bc) explain…

Herodotus travelled throughout the Near East as part of his mission to discover the deep origins of the conflict between Persians and Greeks that led to the famous Persian wars (490-479 bc). But he was also fascinated by human behaviour and assiduously recorded the customs of those peoples with whom he came into contact.


In Babylonia (modern Iraq), he was surprised to find that people tended not to use doctors (probably wisely), but immediately carried anyone who fell ill into the city’s main square, where it was forbidden for a passer-by to walk by in silence without enquiring what was wrong.

As a result, anyone who had experienced the same ailment, or knew of it in someone else, was obliged to share his knowledge. Herodotus enthusiastically concluded: ‘Anyone will stop by the sick man’s side and offer advice and make recommendations which he has himself proved successful in whatever the trouble may be, or which he has known to succeed with other people.’

The Greek world was well-peopled with doctors whose highest ambition was to become the public doctor for a town (they did their training on private patients). Nevertheless, among all the customs of the Babylonians, Herodotus reckoned this the second most ingenious (the first being their method of marrying off their daughters). After all, it was a very effective way of pooling common experience (something Aristotle was very keen on) and still is: as everyday experience and doctors’ advice columns testify, who does not adore talking about their own ailments and advising others on what has worked for them?

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