Intended for healthcare professionals

Fillers One hundred years ago

Greek and Latin Useless for Doctors

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 29 July 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:288

What is the value of a knowledge of Greek and Latin to a professor of the art of medicine? I will tell you in the words of a distinguished writer and scholar who has recently passed away: “As to doctors, can we gravely admit that they ought to understand the language in which their prescriptions are written, and that they find it instructive to read Galen and Hippocrates in Greek? To men of science it is pointed out that their ever-increasing technical terminology is systematically formed from Greek and Latin words. That is true; and it is also true that a man of science might obtain a perfect grasp of this terminology by means of a list of words that he would learn in a day and the use of a dictionary that he might acquire in a week.” Although useless to the medical man in his profession, however, yet it may be necessary to know Greek and Latin in order to understand English, to develop the mental faculties, and to gain general culture—then, indeed, it is worth even the medical man's while to devote the time to learn these two languages. I will let the same writer reply again: “The fact is that the study of Latin (for Greek, except in respect of scientific terminology, has much less to do with the question, and would hardly have been placed on a par with Latin here but for the hasty and random way in which the stock arguments on the question are continually repeated) cannot tell us what the English language is; it can only help us to understand how it has come to be what it is.” (BMJ 1900;ii:1067.)

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