Soranus of Ephesus

98-138 AD

Soranus of Ephesus, a Roman physician, lived in the times of Trajan and Hadrian. He is best known for his contributions to gynecology. He was also the chief of the Methodical school of medicine—a school that focused more on treatment than diagnoses or etiologies. He published several books, each on different topics. One was on signs of fractures and on bandages and another on acute and chronic diseases. He also wrote about the rules of health and the pathology of internal diseases.

Despite his focus on treatment, Soranus was known to have exceptional diagnostic skills. When describing the symptoms of stroke, then referred to as apoplexy, Soranus provided a detailed analysis, including loss of voice, paralysis, indistinct pronunciation, and forgetfulness. He offers a way of differentiating apoplexy from paralysis, epilepsy, stupor, and hysterical seizures (Karenberg & Hort, 1998, p. 166).

Soranus also distinguished between sensory and motor impairments in patients and described the differences between flaccid and spastic paralysis (Benton & Joynt, 1960, p. 207).

In his book on gynecology he provided a recommendation about infant fitness. He wrote that a baby should have a mother who experienced a healthy pregnancy, suitable gestational age, and a vigorous cry. It should, he argued, be “perfect in all its parts, members and senses” and have those parts properly moving and appropriately sized. “And by conditions contrary to those mentioned, the infant not worth rearing is recognized” (Translation by Temkin, 1956).

Soranus wrote at length about those with mental health issues, with a special focus on a kindly treatment of the mentally ill. He criticized the harsh treatments used by his fellow countrymen and argued that if restraints are needed they should be bands that are “soft and delicate texture (Millon, 2004, p. 30). He employed a corpuscular theory to account for mental illness in which the atoms and the canal in which they flowed were in disequilibrium. When the speed of the corpuscles or the size of the pores were incompatible, the result was depression,hysteria, or delirium. In accord with humor theory, he accounted for melancholia as an excess of black bile, hysteria as a disorder of the uterus, phrenitis as a fever related to the diaphragm, and hypochondriasis as a dysfunction of the hypochondrium (Millon, 2004, p. 29).

Writings about Soranus

Benton, A. & Joynt, R. (1960). Early descriptions of aphasia. Archives of Neurology, 3, 205-222.

Drabkin, I E (1951). Soranus and his system of medicine. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 25, 6, 503-18.

Drabkin, M F; Drabkin I E (1951). Caelius Aurelianus Gynaecia, fragments of a Latin version of Soranus' Gynaecia from a thirteenth century manuscript. Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Supplement 13, 1-136.

Gerdtz, J. (May, 1994). Mental illness and the Roman physician: the legacy of Soranus of Ephesus. Hospital & Community Psychiatry, 45, 5, 485-7.

Karenberg, A. and Hort I. (1998). Medieval descriptions and doctrines of stroke: Preliminary analysis of select sources. Part I: The Struggle for terms and theories – Late antiquity and early middle ages (300-800). Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 7, 3, 162–173.

Malinas, Y. (November 1987). A theory of conception (Soranus of Ephesus). Bulletin of the Academy National Medicine, 171 (8): 1027-32.

Temkin, Owsei, trans (1956). Soranus’ gynecology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Todman, Don (February 2008). Soranus of Ephesus (AD 98-138) and the Methodist sect. Journal of Medical Biography, 16, 1, 51.