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

Zoe M. Adams, Joseph J. Fins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


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 (circa mid-fourth century BCE). Aristotle influenced neuroscientists of the nineteenth and early-twentieth 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 discipline of reception studies in classics scholarship, we demonstrate the importance of etymology and historical origin when considering modern medical nosology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)140-153
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of the History of the Neurosciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 3 2017


  • Antiquity
  • Aristotle
  • Hippocrates
  • Plato
  • minimally conscious state (MCS)
  • persistent vegetative state (PVS)
  • reception studies
  • traumatic brain injury (TBI)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Clinical Neurology
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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