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History of Medicine |

Whither Prometheus' Liver? Greek Myth and the Science of Regeneration

Carl Power, PhD; and John E.J. Rasko, MBBS, PhD
[+] Article and Author Information

From the Centenary Institute, University of Sydney, and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, Australia.


Potential Financial Conflicts of Interest: None disclosed.

Requests for Single Reprints: John E.J. Rasko, MBBS, PhD, Centenary Institute, Locked Bag 6, Newtown, New South Wales 2042, Australia; e-mail, j.rasko@cenint.org.

Current Author Addresses: Drs. Power and Rasko: Centenary Institute, Locked Bag 6, Newtown, New South Wales 2042, Australia.


Ann Intern Med. 2008;149(6):421-426. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-149-6-200809160-00009
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Stem-cell biologists and those involved in regenerative medicine are fascinated by the story of Prometheus, the Greek god whose immortal liver was feasted on day after day by Zeus' eagle. This myth invariably provokes the question: Did the ancient Greeks know about the liver's amazing capacity for self-repair? The authors address this question by exploring the origins of Greek myth and medicine, adopting a 2-fold strategy. First, the authors consider what opportunities the ancient Greeks had to learn about the liver's structure and function. This involves a discussion of early battlefield surgery, the beginnings of anatomical research, and the ancient art of liver augury. In addition, the authors consider how the Greeks understood Prometheus' immortal liver. Not only do the authors examine the general theme of regeneration in Greek mythology, they survey several scholarly interpretations of Prometheus' torture.

Figures

Grahic Jump Location
Figure 1.
Detail from Prometheus Bound, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1612–8.

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Grahic Jump Location
Grahic Jump Location
Figure 2.
Babylonian clay model of a sheep's liver, 1900–1600 BC.

Reproduced with permission from the British Museum. ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Grahic Jump Location

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