Historical origins of the vegetative state

The historical origins of the vegetative state: Received wisdom and the utility of the text

Zoe M. Adams and Joseph J. Fins

Journal of the History of the Neurosciences: Basic and Clinical Perspectives 26, 140-153 (2016)


The persistent vegetative state (PVS) is one of the most iconic and misunderstood phrases in clinical neuroscience. Coined as a diagnostic category by Scottish neurosurgeon Bryan Jennett and American neurologist Fred Plum in 1972, the phrase “vegetative” first appeared in Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul. Aristotle influenced neuroscientists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Xavier Bichat and Walter Timme, and informed their conceptions of the vegetative nervous system. Plum credits Bichat and Timme in his use of the phrase, thus putting the ancient and modern in dialogue. In addition to exploring Aristotle’s definition of the “vegetative” in the original Greek, we put Aristotle in conversation with his contemporaries—Plato and the Hippocratics—to better apprehend theories of mind and consciousness in antiquity. Utilizing the emerging discipline of reception studies in classics scholarship, we demonstrate the importance of etymology and historical origin when considering modern medical nosology.

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