Aesculap gave his staff, Minerva his shield 2

Aesculap gave his staff, Minerva his shield

Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, pharmacy assistant at the Hofapotek in Paderborn, was excited: he had just discovered a new substance, an opium poppy alkaloid. A little later, he finally found a suitable name for it: After intensely remembering his Ancient Greek lectures, in 1817 he published his first treatise on anesthetic and soothing extract: "On Morphine, a New Basic Base and Meconic Acid, as the major components of opium." But how did he come to create the word?

As English is today, of course, the first foreign language in our schools, it was Latin, and in higher schools ancient Greek. It didn't stop there, that they too knew their way around the world of the gods: Sertürner knew of the ancient Hypnos, the god of sleep, and Thanatos, his brother, the god of death. According to mythology, Hypnos had about 1000 children, one of whom was Morpheus, the keeper of dreams. Because Sertürner had once again intoxicated himself and his friends with a new drug, very strongly in Morfe's arms (and almost never came out again, with a dose, he did not know it), he christened the new alkaloid after him. Hypnotics as a sleep-inducing substance were named from the father of the gods, and Thanatologie stands for the science of the causes and circumstances of death. So far so logical.

Axel Karenberg, a professor at the Institute of History of Medicine in Cologne, designed a series of lectures that were particularly popular with first-semester students. In their book, Amor, Äskulap & Co, they are summarized. It provides astounding background knowledge in the nomenclature of chemistry, pharmacy and medicine and gives a touch of romance through the fragile sciences. Researchers and scholars of earlier times have generously used the treasures of antiquity and the Middle Ages, proving comprehensive humanities education.

For example, the ugly and hazy Greek forest god Pan, for example, attached great value to a smooth afternoon nap. In the "Pan hour", when the sun was at its highest, the harasser had severe punishments for which he feared: then, with thunderous rage, the deity caused a "panic" of fear among the flock of animals, they fled, and the noise maker saw his sheep. and the goats may never be again. Phobos, one of the sons of the god of war, gave his name to a whole host of ailments, phobias. Asklepios, the god of healing, walked the baton with a serpent's guild as an identification badge, and one of his daughters, Hygieia, perpetuated himself in the discipline of hygiene. The Romans and Greeks believed that the three goddesses of fate gave birth to the thread of life at birth. The last of the group, Atropos, then cut the ribbon with a practiced tape – this unfortunately ended human existence. And right now. As early as the 16th century, the name "Atropa" was haunted again and again as a name for a particular evening primrose plant. And because beautiful Rococo women love to drip a deadly nightshade extract that spreads their pupils – which in the evening looked great in the light of candles – the name was expanded to "Atropa belladonna". The pharmacist Rudolph Brandes of Bad Salzuflen introduced the Atropin designation in 1825.

Because the Greek or Roman gods lived abundantly promiscuously, it happened to one of their extramarital children: For example, when the beauty of the goddess Aphrodite ("Aphrodisiacs") was having fun with the messenger of the god Hermes. Her offspring of youth Hermaphroditos grew up quite pretty; while he was bathing naked, he was secretly watched by a nymph who fell in love with him on the spot. But since he refused her love, she dragged the young man into his depths and united with him a hybrid being: thus, in antiquity, people used to explain "hermaphrodite," which had both feminine and masculine gender characteristics.

Psychiatry is also happy to use the rich treasure of Greek mythology: Sigmund Freud's "Oedipus Complex" has found its way into the common language. The son of a nymph Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and established a clinical picture of morbidly exaggerated self-love. And finally, the Achilles heel: It's not only the name for the strongest tendon of the body, but also for the proverbially inflamed spot. The son of a goddess made himself invulnerable to immersion in the river Styx; but somewhere the mother had to hold little Achilles – and so this place at the foot became the entry point of a deadly poisoned arrow.

But not only did the world of gods serve the naming, the Bible and literature also inspired the imagination of the creators. Sodomy, masturbation and Hiob syndrome (skin disease) originate from the Old Testament, Munchausen syndrome, Werther effect, sadism and masochism from the literary field. "Most models of poetry and fine arts have only found themselves in the technology of medicine for the last 200 years, created by a strange human need: the desire to enchant through poetry," the author says. But this interest in the frontiers of science seems to have been dampened. "Probably no one will remember the origin and etymology of defining word elements."

But then you can look for the book. Or did you know that "Minervagips", a relief orthopedic spine fixation, modeled on the armor shield of the Roman goddess of war?

Alexandra Regner,
PTA and journalist

Axel Karenberg: Amor, Äskulap & Co. Classical mythology in the language of modern medicine. Published by Schattauer, Stuttgart, 2005. 213 p. ISBN 3-7945-2343-1