Brooke Holmes


Brooke Holmes, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Classics, spends much of her time in the fourth and fifth century B.C.E., reading and interpreting ancient Greek texts. But she is not firmly lodged in that era.

In the classroom, she takes great joy, for example, in making the ancients’ approach to the body relevant to her students, including those who plan to study medicine after leaving Princeton.

“With undergraduates, you can fundamentally help them see medicine as not just a science, but as an art that is socially and ethically embedded and constantly challenging you with questions,” she says.

In her work, Holmes has traced the evolution of thinking, from ancient Greece to the present, about disease, symptoms and treatment. The ancient Greeks lived in a culture that ascribed disease to gods or daemons. Diseases came from external sources, such as Apollo, whose invisible arrows were thought to cause plagues. Hippocrates took a different approach. He believed that the source of disease erupted from within you, and that the body obeyed a set of physical laws that were different from the laws that govern the gods.

As the culture began to support the idea of disease as something that needed to be treated by experts in the body, and not as something imposed by the gods, there was also an eventual shift to the patient taking responsibility for the affliction.

“In the fourth century B.C.E., there is an anxiety about taking care of the body, knowing what will make you sick, eating the right kinds of foods,” Holmes explains. “Taking care of the body becomes an ethical responsibility and that gets extended to taking care of the soul.”

Holmes believes that some of the questions the ancients struggled with continue to vex modern thinkers. What, for example, is the role of the patient? Is the patient just a vessel for the disease that needs to be treated, or can the patient provide information useful to the practitioner?

“If you watch how the field develops as a medicine about the body, even at the beginning they didn’t know what to do with the people attached to the body,” Holmes says. “The only thing they can do is treat them as objects. Patients are either compliant or noncompliant, but they are not experts about their body.” In the case of modern practitioners, she says, medical schools have often led them to the conclusion that the easiest approach to treatment is to edit the patient out of the picture.

In her class “Ancient Greco-Roman Medicine,” Holmes likes to explore such issues. For those intending to study medicine, as well as classics majors and others, she believes the ancients reset the context on complicated questions about responsibility, ethics, causality and blame. She likes to stress that some of these questions will continually confront students long after they leave Princeton.

“Why does this Greek stuff matter?” she asks. “I’m not interested in whether Hippocrates understands pneumonia. I’m not interested in the Hippocratic oath because it’s a very narrow understanding of ethics. What I’m interested in is how a set of problems emerges once you start thinking about the body as the site of disease, problems that you will never solve, that you will work through every time you meet with a patient. And for the people who aren’t pre-med students, we all live in the age of biology. Our lives are being transformed more and more by our engagement with medicine. We are now more than ever constantly patients.”

These are some of the reasons Holmes believes the humanities and classics should be central to every undergraduate’s education. “The worst thing you could do is suggest that the humanities are optional,” she says. “Princeton has the confidence, and the history and the resources to stand behind its values and think about the big picture. As a recent alumna told us, we are trying to educate our students not for their first job but for a job that might not even exist yet.”