Diplomatic Pouch / May 1, 2014
By Larry Luxner
It’s not every day a Washington-based diplomat gets to plant a sapling bearing the same DNA sequence as a world-famous tree that flourished nearly 25 centuries ago.
But that’s exactly what Greek Ambassador Christos Panagopoulos did April 25, when — with the help of half a dozen other dignitaries — he shoveled rich black soil into a hole containing a clone of the “Hippocrates Tree” on the grounds of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md.
The ceremony took place under a huge white tent on a particularly windy Friday morning and was attended by 150 diplomats, scientists, NIH officials, journalists and other guests.
“We’ve been excited about this event for many months. We were waiting until the temperature was finally warm enough, and the ground finally soft enough, for digging a garden,” said Lawrence A. Tabak, the institute’s principal deputy director. The last time NIH had held such a ceremony, he noted, was in December 1961 — to mark the 125th anniversary of the National Library of Medicine and to dedicate its new $7 million headquarters.
Following Tabak with brief remarks were F. Anthony Clifford, chief engineer at the NIH Office of Research Facilities; Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, director of the National Library of Medicine; Dr. Constantine A. Stratakis, scientific director of NIH’s Division of Intramural Research; and Dr. David J. Lipman, director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
“It was more than 2,400 years ago, on the small island of Cos, that one of the brightest minds of the ages used to gather his disciples under the shadow of a plane tree,” said the ambassador, speaking of the sycamore which shaded Hippocrates and his students some 400 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. “This tree lives on in this great institution today. It took American ingenuity and dedication to clone this tree and make this very symbolic gesture possible.”
The highlight of the 1961 ceremony was when the Greek envoy at the time, Alexis Liatis, presented a cutting from the celebrated Hippocrates Tree, which was planted the following spring. But by the early 1990s, the celebrated tree began succumbing to a fungal disease common to sycamores, and in 2013 it was finally cut down.
NIH landscape architect Lynn Mueller got in touch with the Michigan-based nonprofit Champion Tree Project — now known as the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive — which successfully cloned the tree. Besides the clone just planted now, a second specimen will be soon planted near the NIH Clinical Research Center.
Today, the NLM — founded in 1836 — ranks as the world’s largest medical library, with more than 19 million books, journals, audiovisuals and historical materials. At last month’s ceremony, the NLM’s National Center for Biotechnology Information unveiled the DNA barcode of the Hippocrates Tree (Platanus orientalis).
In charge of that project was Lipman, who spoke of the importance of DNA sequencing to modern science.
“This tree standing here says something about the friendship between Greece and America, and it also says something about the folks at NIH who saw there was a problem and had the foresigtht to do something about it,” he said. “From the time of Hippocrates to the present day, physicians and scientists have used careful observations and comparative analysis to further their knowledge and understanding of diseases in general. And I’m sure Hippocrates would have been fascinated by the DNA Bar Code Project.”
In his brief remarks, Stratakis paid homage to the “thousands of scientists of diverse backgrounds” who work at the sprawling NIH campus in Bethesda.
“This tree symbolizes one of the basic tenets of our mission: our commmitment to global health. Under this famous tree on the island of Cos, Hippocrates mentored practicioners of his art, people of all religions and ethnicities. This was the NIH of the fifth century, and the Hippocrates Oath — repeated by medical graduates all around the world, 25 centuries later, is an essential part of medicine,” said Stratakis, repeating that oath in its original Greek. “As an American physician of Greek heritage I take pride at this moment: the replanting of a living symbol of the father of medicine.”