From Greece to Gainesville: The Hippocratic Tree at Shands UF
Caroline H. Crist, Sustainability Intern
Wilmot Botanical Gardens
The father of medicine, Hippocrates, is believed to have first taught medical students under a plane tree (Platanus orientalis), commonly referred to in the United States as a sycamore tree, on the Greek Isle of Kos in the fifth century BC. Hippocrates who is widely recognized for his contributions to modern medicine was the first to develop the concept that people with the same disease exhibit similar symptoms which produce similar outcomes. Today, he is especially remembered for the Hippocratic Oath, an oath of ethics that physicians take before practicing medicine.
The tree under which legend says Hippocrates taught on the Greek Isle of Kos is believed by many to be more than 2500 years old. Others suggest the original tree died and was replaced by a second tree about 500 years ago. The current tree on the Isle of Kos is believed to be a direct descent of the original based on age calculations. Cuttings from the latter have been provided to medical centers and schools around the world including the University of Florida.
Since 1969, and each year thereafter the senior medical student class at the UF College of Medicine has presented the Hippocratic Award to a clinical faculty member whom they believe best demonstrates the principles of Hippocrates in their practice of medicine. An annual award ceremony takes place underneath a sycamore tree that is a descendant of the tree that Hippocrates allegedly taught beneath in Greece. The relationship between the two trees is greater than many people realize at the University of Florida.
The UF College of Medicine’s class of 1969, in collaboration with Ms. Georgia Chotas, Terry Marshall, Dr. Carl Whitcomb, Rosewell McClelland, John Papavlachopoulos, and others sought to bring a piece of history to Gainesville. The process began prior to October of 1968, when Ms. Chotas, Director of Health Center Information Services, sent a letter to the USDA Plant Quarantine Division requesting a permit to allow cuttings from the Hippocratic Tree in Greece to be imported to Gainesville.
On December 4th, 1968, Permit No. 37-33346 under Regulation 6 was issued to the J. Hillis Miller Health Center for the importation of 12 specimen plants of Platanus orientalis from the Greek Island of Kos. In February 1969, cuttings from the Tree of Hippocrates arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey on Trans World Airlines Flight No. 881 escorted by Mr. George Tambouras from the American Consulate in Athens. The cuttings were then transferred to an Eastern Airlines flight before arriving in Gainesville on February 5th, 1969. Although referred to as cuttings, the specimens were actually bare root seedlings.
The acceptance of the seedlings from Greece was a monumental moment, a culmination of over a year of collaboration between the Greek and United States Embassies, the Greek Ministry of Agriculture, and the Greek Forestry Service. Of the six seedlings that arrived in Gainesville, four survived. The most promising cultivar was planted in front of what is now the North Tower of Shands Hospital during a ceremony on June 14th, 1969. The tree now stands approximately 25 feet in height and has been at the original location for more than 53 years.
This past winter it became evident that the health of the tree was declining. The presence of numerous small shoots at the lower region of the trunk suggested that the tree did not have sufficient nutrients to support vigorous growth of the entire tree. To preserve the original efforts of Georgia Chotas, the UF Medical School Class of 1969, and the other key people involved in acquiring this gift from Greece, treatment was administered on February 24th, 2022, in an effort to provide adequate nutrients to the tree. Following the recommendations of Dr. Carl Whitcomb, who initially cared for the original seedlings after they arrived in 1969 and also oversaw planting of the original tree, Wilmot Botanical Garden’s Director and professor emeritus, Dr. Craig Tisher, Dr. Charles Guy, professor emeritus of the Department of Environmental Horticulture, and Sustainability Intern at the Wilmot Botanical Gardens, Ms. Caroline Crist, supplied nutrients to the soil surrounding the plane tree. This involved drilling multiple 10-inch-deep holes in two circles around the drip line of the malnourished tree to intersect the roots. The holes were then filled with ½ lb of Micromax micronutrient fertilizer, ½ lb of granular sulfur, and ½ lb of a slow-release fertilizer. The effect of this treatment became evident within weeks when the tree leafed out (see Figure 1).
At about the same time, several cuttings were taken from the lower trunk of the tree by Dr. Bart Schutzman, Lecturer in the Department of Environmental Horticulture, and Dr. Tisher in an effort to grow additional specimens of the tree (see Figure 2).
Early results are encouraging as many of the cuttings have been successfully rooted in perlite (see Figure 3 & 4) and several of these have been transplanted to potting soil (see Figure 5).
Questions remain regarding the location in Gainesville where the three additional seedlings were planted that were obtained originally in 1969 and whether they have survived. Also, plans are being developed to perform DNA analyses to determine the genomic profile of the tree at Shands UF. The results will be compared with genomic profiles derived from similar specimens located at other institutions in the United States and abroad.