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Dioscorides


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(1st cent. ad),

of Cilician Anazarbus, wrote a five‐book work on the drugs employed in medicine. He travelled extensively collecting information about the medicinal uses of herbs, minerals, and animal products. He visited the Greek mainland, Crete, Egypt, and Petra, but he mentions plants from much further afield. In the Preface he describes his travels as leading to a ‘soldier‐like life’.

Dioscorides' ‘Materials of Medicine’ lists c.700 plants and just over 1,000 drugs. His method was to observe plants in their native habitats and to research previous authorities on these subjects. Finally he related the written and oral data to his clinical observations of the effects the drugs had on and in the body. He also provided data on preparations, adulterations, and veterinary and household uses. Dioscorides boasted that his method of arrangement surpassed that of previous works. His scheme was first to arrange by categories, such as whole animals, animal parts and products, minerals, and plants—the last subdivided into roots, pot‐herbs, fruits, trees, and shrubs. Within each category he arranged drugs according to their physiological effect on the body. This arrangement by drug affinities was not explained, and so many later copyists of his text rearranged his system according to the alphabet, thereby obscuring the genius of his contributions. Dioscorides' information aims at medical precision, and his account is relatively free of supernatural elements, reflecting keen, critical observation of how drugs act. His medical judgements were well regarded until the 16th cent. Manuscripts of the ‘Materials of Medicine’ in Greek, Latin, and Arabic are often beautifully illuminated and indicate that Dioscorides' original text was accompanied by illustrations. See botany; pharmacology.

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) — Classical Studies.


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