Heinrich von Staden Professor of Classics and History of Science Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA

“When Physicians Err — Responses to Failure in Ancient Medicine”

Thursday 4th March, 5.30 pm

Newcastle University, Curtis Auditorium

Medical errors have become the subject of numerous extensive studies and of sharp debates in recent decades. Five years ago, for example, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A., published a report (“To Err is Human”, 1999) which estimated that as many as 98,000 Americans died annually as a consequence of medical mistakes that occur in hospitals. That is more than die from motor vehicle accidents, breast cancer or AIDS. The total costs to the American economy of preventable medical errors were estimated to be between $17 billion and $29 billion per year. A few weeks ago a new study by two physicians (Dr R. M. Wachter and Dr K. G. Shojania, “Internal Bleeding: The Truth Behind America’s Terrifying Epidemic of Medical Mistakes”, 2004) concluded that health care still “is not much safer than it was in 1999”. Similar reports have been published in other countries. In these contexts it is useful to reflect on some of the earliest attempts, notably in Hippocratic writings of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., to confront the inevitability of medical errors. Many Hippocratic writers displayed an awareness of a tension between (a) their claim to an efficacious professional expertise, founded on scientific truths and on experience, and (b) the frequency with which even expert practice led to unintended harmful consequences. They also recognized that some of these consequences were preventable. The lecture explores the types of errors described by early Hippocratic physicians, their views concerning the reasons for the fallibility of scientific medicine, and the moral, social, epistemological, and pragmatic responses to medical errors and failures.

Heinrich von Staden is the author of “Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria” and of well over a hundred other contributions to the history of Greek and Roman medicine. He has taught at universities in Europe and the United States. After many years as Professor of Classics at Yale University, he became Professor of Classics and History of Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1998.


Professor von Staden’s lecture will mark the launch of the joint Newcastle-Durham


With the support of a £325,000 Wellcome Trust Enhancement Award, the medical historians at the Universities of Newcastle and Durham have formed a joint new Centre for the History of Medicine. The activities of the Centre comprise a co-ordinated research programme, a Masters training programme in the History of Medicine, a number of PhD projects, a series of seminars/workshops/conferences, teaching initiatives within the medical curriculum, and a series of public engagement activities.

For further information about the Centre see

For further information about this event please contact:

P.J. van der Eijk Professor of Greek University of Newcastle Classics School of Historical Studies Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU Tel. (+)44.191.2228262 Fax: (+)44.191.2228262 email: [email protected]