THEODORE STEPHANIDES: HOMO UNIVERSALIS
"A part of us remains and that half-self
still wanders through those well-remembered ways;
Until sometimes we feel as if we were
a shade that alternates between two lives
A ghostinhabiting two worlds, and yet
Not fully fleshed…" (Theodore Stephanides, ‘City of the Mind.’)
You all know the type. The eccentric polymath that is possessed of knowledge so broad in scope as to astound his peers and make them secretly speculate that such breadth of cognition can only be the consequence of the making of a pact with the infernal powers. Polymaths in particular abound in the realm of English literature, creating some of fiction’s most enduring and beloved characters, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s all-knowing, all seeing detective Sherlock Homes and of course P. J Wodehouse’s perspicacious and sagacious butler, Jeeves.
In the Hellenic discourse, especially within its more nationalistic variations, the polymath marks the apogee of the development of the ultimate Greek, to fit the stereotypical ideal. That is, if we as a race are supposed to have invented everything worth inventing and learnt everything worth knowing by virtue of our intrinsic superiority before variously passing it on to the rest of the world or having it stolen from us as our ancestor Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the Olympian Gods, whose representatives we are upon this earth, then we are by nature polymaths and are entitled to that appellation by right.
Polymaths abounded in ancient times, the most notable being Aristotle who wrote on subjects as diverse as logic, metaphysics, biology, psychology, ethics and literary criticism and Archimedes whose interests lay in mechanics, hydraulics, geometry and Sicilian steam baths. That polymathy endured into Byzantine times is evidenced by the works of such scholars as Psellus and the Patriarch Photios. Indeed, one could venture to say that the apogee of polymathy was marked by the compilation of the book that purported to enclose within in every single strand of knowledge that existed in the world: the Suda, arguably the world’s first encyclopaedia.
It is for this reason that the works and deeds of scientists and scholars that are kinsmen inspire and excite us. For they are bright angelic guides to the primeaval enlightenment that was our right and natural state before our intellectual and physical fall at the hands of the east, west or anyone else one cares to blame. In modern Greek times, there are a great many contenders to the title of polymath, but few to whom the title actually applies. One of these, is the humble Dr Theodore Stephanides.
I first came across Theodore Stephanides in the pages of British naturalist and fervent philhellene Gerald Durrell’s magical depiction of his childhood growing up in Corfu. In that book, ‘My Family and other Animals,’ he is introduced to us as the oracle extraodinaire on all matters botanical pertaining to the island and a whole lot more besides:
“It was small wonder that we treated him like an oracle. The phrase 'Theo says' set the seal of authenticity on whatever item of information the person was going to vouchsafe; it was the touchstone for getting Mother's agreement to anything from the advisability of living entirely on fruit to the innocuousness of keeping scorpions in one's bedroom. Theodore was everything to everyone. With Mother he could discuss plants, particularly herbs and recipes, while keeping her supplied with reading matter from his capacious library of detective novels. With Margo he could talk of diets, exercises and the various unguents supposed to have a miraculous effect on spots, pimples and acne. He could keep pace effortlessly with any idea that entered the mercurial mind of my brother Larry, from Freud to peasant belief in vampires; while Leslie he could enlighten on the history of firearms in Greece or the winter habits of the hare. As far as I was concerned, with a hungry, questing and ignorant mind, Theodore represented a fountain of knowledge on every subject from which I drank greedily.”
Indeed, it is a wonder that Dr Theodore Stephanides’ legacy is not widely appreciated, given that his life was truly remarkable. Born to Thessalian parents in Bombay, his first language was English and he only began to learn Greek when his parents moved to Corfu when he was eleven. Stephanides served as a gunner in the Greek Army in World War I on the Macedonian front, and again in the Asia Minor War. His anecdote, related to Gerald Durrell about how he was chosen to lead the triumphal entry into Smyrna only to have his horse gallop out of control as it was sprayed by eau de Cologne by an ecstatic Smyrniot is side-splittingly funny, implausible, yet remarkably true.
He published two works of translated poetry between 1925-1926 but pursuing an alternative career path, went to study Medicine in Paris in 1929. Returining to Corfu in 1930, he established the island's first X-ray unit unit. His selfless dedication to Corfiot public health placed him in dire financial straits as he insitied upon treating most of his patients free of charge. Beloved by all Corfiotes, he was commissioned in 1933 by the Corfu health authority to prepare a report on the principal localities where anti-malarial measures would be necessary. It was around this time, in 1936, that he was introduced to the Durrell family, including writer and naturalist Gerald Durrell, then a boy and the author Lawrence Durrell, both of whom would remain life-long friends. Stephanides would later send Lawrence Durrell medicines for the British Embassy in Cyprus and continuing to dabble in literary circles, would make a cameo appearance in Lawrence Durrell’s novel “Prospero’s Cell” as well as Henry Miller’s famous “The Colossus of Maroussi.”
Just before leaving Corfu in 1938 to take up residence in Thessaloniki in order to take up appointment at the anti-malarial unit founded there by the Rockerfeller Foundation, Stephanidies discovered a number of microscopic aquatic organisms two of which would be named in his honour, namely: Thermocyclops stephanidesi, and Schizopera stephanidesi. Possessed of as brilliant sense of humour, he would later write deprecatingly of his scientific books: “I have never heard of it becoming a best seller in spite of the fact that it contains, among other things, a suggestive account of the sexual aberrations of the water flea Cyclops Bicuspidatus ..."
During the Second World War, Stephanides served as a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Greece, Crete, Sicily and the Sahara. His account of the Battle of Crete, “Climax in Crete” blames the Allies for mismanaging the defence of that island and is a valuable chronicle of that period. As for his own personal wartime experiences, Gerald Durrell, who wrote a biography of Stephanides, writes: "Theodore, the most unwarlike of men, was bombed and machine-gunned with the rest by the Germans. Yet who but Theodore would relate how, when the Stukas dived and machine-gunned the road, he flung himself face downwards in a ditch and was 'interested to note' two species of mosquito larvae he had not previously noted."
Stephanides moved to London after the War , working as an Assistant Radiologist between 1945-1961. It was during this period that he published his two noted works in science: The Microscope and the Practical Principles of Observation and the seminal A Survey of the Freshwater Biology of Corfu and of Certain Other Regions of Greece.
Stephanides also gained much praise and good standing as a poet after the back to back publications of poetry collections The Golden Face (1965) and The Cities of the Mind (1969) He went on to publish the personal collection of poems Worlds in a Crucible in 1973 and also published a substantial body of translated poetry based on the works of the famous Greek poet Kostos Palamas ending with the posthumous publication of Kostis Palamas: A Portrait and an Appreciation including Iambs and Anapaests. His other widely-praised translation, that of the famous Cretan epic poem Erotocritos was also published posthumously in 1984. All in all, Theodore Stephanides published some twenty books during his lifetime on diverse subjects and his cosmopolitan background facilitated Britons of the pre-war and immediate post-war period obtaining an appreciation and love for Greece. Both Durrell brothers dedicated their books dealing with Greece to him and Gerald in particular would write a most fitting description of Greece’s obscure modern day sage: "Theodore had and has all the best qualities of the Victorian Naturalists: insatiable interest in the world he inhabits, and that ability to illuminate any topic with his own observations and thoughts. This, coupled with a puckish sense of humour, a prodigious memory and an ability to pack forty-eight hours into twenty-four, makes up a very extraordinary man."
Interestingly enough and in fitting with his all embracing intellect, there is a Crater on the moon unofficially named Stephanides (Romer-A). It is in the South Eastern highlands of the Sea of Serenity close to the landing site of Apollo 17 the last, and appropriately, most scientific of all the 1960's U.S. moon landings. When Dr Theodore Stephanides finally died in 1983 at the ripe old age of 87, having made such a great mark in Greek science and letters, he had already penned his own eloquent epitaph in English, one with which we will leave you this week to ponder and appreciate the works and deeds of our last true polymath:
“Let something of me still remain behind;
A verse a cadence, to outlive the clay;
Let some reflect, some glimmer of my mind
Recall the passage of my little day.”