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.
|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
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