I swear by Apollo: Strike diary 17

It’s day three of our strike. The weather is wet and generally miserable. This is where things are starting to get tough, and resolve can be dampened.

For various reasons, I find it hard to stand still on a picket, so I have asked our strike committee whether it would be OK for me to tour various pickets on our multiple campuses. This was granted, and it has been lovely to meet colleagues from all over the university.

My first stop this morning was in Physics, which is located in the Queen’s Building, which used to be the location of the medical school. I have written about the building before (see here and here): it has very nice statues of Hippocrates and Asclepius, complete with inscriptions in Greek.


Asclepius and Hippocrates on the Queen’s Building, Cardiff.

As I was preparing to take a photo, my phone buzzed. This was my electronic diary ‘helpfully’ reminding me that I was supposed to give a lecture on the Hippocratic Oath. This was a rather cruel trick on the part of fate. For I love giving that particular lecture (which is for a first-year survey course on important ancient texts and objects) on one of the most important texts written in the western world.

The Oath is well-known for its clauses dealing with deadly drugs (the so-called euthanasia clause), with abortive drugs (the so-called abortion clause), and with surgery:

And I will not give a drug that is deadly to anyone if asked for it, nor will I suggest the way to such a counsel. And likewise I will not give a woman a destructive pessary. And in a pure and holy way I will guard my life and my art. I will not cut, and certainly not those suffering from stone, but I will cede this to men who are practitioners of this activity. (Translation: Heinrich von Staden)


Greek inscription on a scroll held by Hippocrates on the Queen’s building: ‘Life is short, the art is long’

In my lecture, I focus on the ‘abortion clause’, the different ways in which it can be interpreted, and it impact on the modern history of reproductive rights.

One part of the Oath I discuss less, and which is in fact far less known (among the general public and physicians – historians of ancient medicine will know this well), is the covenant part of the Oath. This is the section where the person who swears the Oath promises to treat his (this is all definitely about men) master as he would his father:

To regard him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents, and to share, in partnership, my livelihood with him and to give him a share when he is in need of necessities, and to judge the offspring coming from him equal to my male siblings, and to teach them this art, should they desire to learn it, without fee and written covenant, and to give a share both of rules and of lectures, and of all the rest of learning, to my sons and to the sons of him who has taught me and to the pupils who have both made a written contract and sworn by a medical convention but by no other.

To the modern reader, this is all rather strange. I think of some of my teachers as my academic parents, but that ‘family’ is entirely symbolic – this symbolic kinship does not extend to my teachers’ actual children (however much I might respect those children). And I certainly do not expect any of my students to ever feel any sort of financial obligation towards me.

And yet, in many ways, my students are very much responsible for my financial security. This was true before sky-high fees were introduced, but it is even more immediately the case now that students pay those fees. I cannot blame students for thinking that they pay for my time and are therefore entitled to it. I sincerely hope that I’m supportive to my students, and I feel terrible for letting them down during the strike. I do feel, very deeply, that I am breaking a covenant, but that I have little choice but to fight for better working conditions.

But there is a big difference between this strike and the last one. Our Student Union has voted in support of the strike. Students have spoken at rallies. They have stood in the rain with us. This means the world.

Our working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Marketization has led to massive increases in student mental ill health and poverty. It must stop. So I swear by Apollo the Physician, by Asclepius, by Hygeia, by Panacea and by all the gods and goddesses, making them witnesses, that I will continue this fight, beyond this strike, to promote education as a common good.





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