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historical assessments of DIOSCORIDES DE MATERIA MEDICA

1. [home page] DIOSCORIDES TRANSLATED 2. DIOSCORIDES now and then 3. about the MANUSCRIPTS 4. about the PRINTED BOOKS 5. historical assessments 6. reviews and commentary 7. HOW TO ORDER 8. excerpts from BOOK ONE of DIOSCORIDES 9. excerpts from BOOK TWO of DIOSCORIDES 10. about the illustrators and illustrations 11. FREE DOWNLOADS [entire book] pdf files [not for resale] & ILLUSTRATIONS

historical opinion & commentary ...................

Julius von Sachs virtually ignored Dioscorides' contribution to botany in his authoritative History of Botany 1530-1860. In the wide-ranging Guide to the Literature of Botany Benjamin Daydon Jackson accuses Dioscorides of causing endless discussion and confusion among his followers, contending his meagre plant descriptions cannot be dignified by that term: 'his various treatises formed the staple of the discourses and wranglings of the early botanists of the Renaissance' until the appearance of Sibthorp's Flora of Greece. This 'contention was probably caused by the extreme meagreness of the original descriptions ... so that the fancy of each succeeding writer had abundant scope in endeavouring to fit, and to persuade others that he had fitted, plants of Northern Europe to accounts written in the Mediterranean region'. Jackson does not mention Dioscorides' profound historical influence.

For fifteen hundred years De Materia Medica was widely read and reproduced as copies, translations, excerpts, and paraphrases in Arabic, Greek and Latin. Claus Nissen in Herbals of five centuries, L'Art Ancien, Zurich 1958 is more generous: 'It owes its universal acceptance to the exemplary accuracy and scientific scrupulousness with which all available data concerning the appearance and occurrence of drugs, their preparation, preservation, indication, and dosage have been collected and discussed, as well as to its comprehensiveness which takes account of all remedies, from the three kingdoms of nature, that were then known thoughout the Mediterranean region'. Furthermore he says, 'There is no doubt that, besides chemistry, pharmacognosy and, especially, pharmacobotanics constitute a glorious chapter in the history of Islamic learning, for the ancient legacy in this field was not only preserved but independently augmented and developed. It was particularly Dioskorides' Materia Medica which enjoyed such high esteem that it was likened to the Koran in a manner almost blasphemous to Muslim eyes'. It was the final authority on pharmacy in Turkey and Spain until the nineteenth century.

In the first half of the twelfth century Matthaeus Platearius of the medical school at Salerno wrote Circa Instans, an alphabetic listing and textbook of simples based on Dioscorides Vulgaris, containing the appearance, manufacture, and applications of drugs. It achieved wide recognition, being among the first herbals printed in 1488. Ernst Meyer placed it on a par with Pliny and Dioscorides, while George Sarton saw it as a great improvement over De Materia Medica and other herbal writings.

De Materia Medica impeded botanical thought, although not for its contents: doctrinaire usage stifled continuing investigation. Dioscorides cannot be considered an original thinker, nor did he engage in primary research. His work is a compendium of known medicinal plants of the Roman Empire, with some new introductions, and certain misidentifications. Many of his plant names are still in use, although not necessarily for the same plants, as we show in this new volume. His descriptions were sometimes brief, often accurate, including distribution and other information. We may regard him as a founder of botanical science. Thomas Johnson, an outstanding figure among British herbalist/botanists of the sixteenth century, friend and close collaborator of John Goodyer, considered De Materia Medica the foundation and basis of all that followed in the field. The Rinascimento, or Rennaissance, revived interest in knowledge and learning, first in Italy in the mid-fifteenth century, spreading northwards some five decades later. Many botanists and herbalists of the sixteenth century based their texts on those of the ancient Greeks, often referring to Pedanios Dioscorides.

His medicinal plants formed the basis of modern botany, establishing the link between botany and medicine, and giving rise to the herbal as we know it; to physic gardens; to the careers of men such as Linnaeus; and latterly, to ethnobotany. It was the medieval physician's duty to fear God and know his Dioscorides, and modern pharmacology stems from his attempts to systematize medicinal knowledge. We even owe the term 'botany' to Dioscorides, who used the Greek term botane, meaning herb. The most influential English herbal, Gerard's The Herball or generall historie of plantes, frequently mentions Dioscorides, and the introduction 'To the Readers' states 'From whence there spring floures not onely to adorne the garlands of the Muses, but also such fruit as learned Dioscorides long travelled for'. The illustrated title page of the Herball's second edition in 1633 shows Dioscorides and Theophrastus as the pillars of healing knowledge. This iconic tradition continues on the title pages of Charles de L'Ecluse's Rariorum Plantarum Historia of 1601, and his Curae posteriores of 1611; Rembert Dodoens' Stirpium Historiae Pemptades Sex of 1616; Jean Bauhin and Jean Henri Cherlier's Historia Plantarum Universalis of 1650-1651; and Giorgio Dalla Torre's Dryandum, Amadryandum Cloridisque Triumphus of 1685; as well as the document dated 1 July 1737 in which the Royal College of Surgeons commended Elizabeth Blackwell's A curious herbal.

Two and a half centuries before Sibthorp, Dr Johann von Cube, a German physician, travelled to the East to find the plants of Dioscorides and other masters. In 1485 he published Hortus Sanitatus, one of the earliest printed herbals. Valerius Cordus (1515 to 1544) travelled through Italy and Germany seeking plants in their natural habitat that the Classical authors, particularly Dioscorides, had described. Cordus lectured on plants at the University of Wittenberg; Adnotationes ad Dioscorides was published from student notes some years after his early death. Cordus' careful observations provided accurate plant descriptions. The scientist Luigi Anguillara (1512 to 1570) travelled through Italy, Greece, the Balkans, and Central Europe on a similar quest. A professor at the University of Padua, he became director of its botanic garden, the first in the world. Similarly, Leonhardt Rauwolf, who died in 1596, travelled from Augsburg to the Levant 'chiefly to gain a clear and distinct knowledge of those delicate herbs described by Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Avicenna et al, by viewing them in their proper and native places and to encourage the apothecaries to procure the right sorts for their shops'. Before Gerard's time, William Turner, an influential English theologian and physician, published his herbals in 1538 and 1548, and wrote of his famous botany teacher Luca Ghini of Bologna, 'Lucas Gynus the reader of Dioscorides in bonomy, my maister'. Ghini lectured on Dioscorides for twenty-eight years. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656 to 1708), a Frenchman, and one of the earliest systematic (classification) botanists, identified many of Dioscorides' plants during travels in Asia Minor.

Frans A Stafleu commented that Carl Linnaeus, 'the Prince of botanists', was the object of an hero-worship previously unknown in botany, with the possible exception of Dioscorides. In Linnaeus' concise history of botany, Bibliotheca botanica, he names Theophrastus, Pliny and Dioscorides among outstanding phytologists of all ages, with no others until the fifteenth century. The famous Dutch botanist Johannes Burman (1707 to 1779) was internationally so highly regarded he received the cognomen Dioscorides III from the Leopoldina, the German academy of sciences. In 1703 Charles Plumier dedicated the edible yam genus with its six hundred species to Dioscorides, naming it dioscorea. A fitting tribute, since a number of dioscorea species yield diosgenin, a precursor of progesterone, valuable for modern drugs such as oral contraceptives and cortisone.

Sir Arthur Hill, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, described a visit to Mount Athos in 1934: 'The official botanist monk ... was a remarkable old man with an extensive knowledge of plants and their properties ... he travelled very quickly, usually on foot, and sometimes on a mule, carrying his flora with him in a large black bulky bag ... his flora was nothing less than four manuscript volumes of Dioscorides, which apparently he himself had copied out. This flora he invariably used for determining any plant which he could not name at sight, and he could find his way in his books and identify his plants to his own satisfaction with remarkable rapidity'. This indicates the powerful influence of De Materia Medica up to the twentieth century.

DIOSCORIDES DE MATERIA MEDICA - five books in one volume: New Modern English Translation. A few of the printed books are still available. See HOW TO ORDER page.