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Vol. LXV, No. 16
August 2, 2013
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Harm Comes to ‘Tree of Hippocrates’

Planted in 1961 as a gift from the Greek government, the Tree of Hippocrates (Plantanus orientalis) has graced the lawn across Center Dr. from the National Library of Medicine as a symbol of the Hippocratic Oath and Hippocrates’ medical innovations. The tree’s health has declined in its more than half-century reign, resulting in a failure to re-leaf during the spring of this year.

Legend states that Hippocrates taught medical students under the original tree, located in Cos (or Kos), Greece, thousands of years ago. Subsequent cuttings of the tree have allowed for offspring trees to be placed around the world at the Greek government’s discretion. Lynn Mueller, NIH landscape architect, estimates that “we may have the only…Hippocrates tree.” While other medical institutions in the United States have seedling trees from the Tree of Hippocrates, NIH has a direct cutting of the tree.

the Tree of Hippocrates, planted in 1961, is bare and leafless despite a lush, wet summer a plaque in front of the tree explains its significance.
Above at left, the Tree of Hippocrates, planted in 1961, is bare and leafless despite a lush, wet summer. At right, a plaque in front of the tree explains its significance.

NIH was initially presented with two trees to commemorate NLM’s new building (Bldg. 38), although only one survived, creating a dilemma once the surviving tree began to deteriorate in 1990. The Grounds Maintenance and Landscaping Branch began a decade-long attempt to restore the tree. Despite a program that included deep-root feedings and fungicide injections, the tree showed no signs of regaining strength. In addition to long-term distress, the tree fell victim to a severe anthracnose fungal outbreak this spring, further expediting its decline.

Since the early 1990s, Mueller has attempted to find a replacement for the tree that also features a direct ancestry with the original tree in order to preserve the plant’s rich history. Initially, he worked to clone NIH’s tree himself, but the cloning process instead resulted in hybrid offspring. After contacting other medical institutions with Tree of Hippocrates seedlings and even the Greek embassy, Mueller was still unable to find a pure version of the tree.

In the late 1990s, Mueller outsourced his cloning attempts to professional nurseries on the east coast, without success. In 2003, he discovered the Champion Tree Project in Copemish, Mich., which he describes as “a group who began trying to clone the remaining giant or champion trees around the U.S. and eventually the world.” Although the Tree of Hippocrates was not the focus of the project’s preservation efforts, the group decided to attempt to clone the Tree of Hippocrates’ cuttings.

Additionally, Dr. Walter J. Pories, professor of surgery, biochemistry and exercise sports science at East Carolina University, took an interest in Mueller’s project and began to nurse seedlings at his university. According to Mueller, two seedlings from Pories’ efforts were planted at NIH in 2009 and “are flourishing and growing at Bldg. 22 and in a reforestation area near parking lot 41B.”

This past spring’s unusually cool, damp weather ultimately sapped the 1961 tree’s remaining energy and caused the tree to fail to re-leaf. Luckily, the Champion Tree Project was successful in cloning the cuttings from 2003 and has produced two viable options for NIH to plant in the fall if the current tree does not re-leaf by the end of summer.

One tree will replace the current Tree of Hippocrates while the other will be planted elsewhere on campus as a backup should the first option not survive. Dr. Richard Wyatt of the Office of Intramural Research hopes that the original tree can be repurposed if it is cut down. “I am sure we can use the trunk to craft awards!” he said.

After nearly two decades of attempting to clone the historically significant tree, Mueller said he “hope[s] that this new tree will flourish for the next 100 years and represent the oath and teaching of Hippocrates here on the NIH campus.”


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