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We are creatures of language, and it's through language that we confront our afflictions of body and mind. It was to serve this understanding that the International Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine was established1 2 by Professor Donald Singer of Warwick University's Medical School and poet Michael Hulse of the Warwick Writing Programme. The inaugural Hippocrates Prize was awarded both in an ‘open’ category—which anyone anywhere was eligible to enter—and an ‘NHS’ category open to National Health Service related employees and health students (see details of the awards).i In its twin categories of award, it reflects the fact that professional writers are drawn to medical subjects, while those who work in health services are no less likely to want to put their thoughts and feelings on paper.
For the ancient world, writing on scientific subjects in verse was the most natural thing in the world. The understanding that prose was the proper medium for scientific expression had yet to become established. Some of the subjects on which Lucretius wrote in his De rerum naturae, an enquiry into natural phenomena, we would now call medical. The Roman author clearly saw nothing unusual in describing the symptoms of plague in poetic form.
No one would pretend that that ancient ease in combining the two disciplines survives unbroken. Nonetheless, a tradition of writing in verse on medical matters can be traced down the centuries, in many parts of the world. And, in our own time, there …