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Pedanius Dioscorides

Pedianos Dioskourides, also known as Pedanius Dioscorides, probably lived between 40CE and 90CE in the time of the Roman Emperors Nero and Vespasian. A Cilician Greek, he was born in Anazarbos (now Nazarba, near Tarsus) within the Roman Empire of the day, and today in Turkey. A learned physician, he practiced medicine as an army doctor, and saw service with the Roman legions in Greece, Italy, Asia Minor, and Provence in modern-day France. His military years provided opportunities for studying diseases, collecting and identifying medicinal plants, and discovering other healing materials. Dioscorides compiled his medical treatise at the suggestion of a fellow-physician, Areius. He had access to the library at Alexandria, and may have studied at Tarsus. He recorded many plants previously unknown to Greek and Roman physicians, and made an effort to describe not only their qualities and remedial effects, but also something of their botany and living morphology including roots, foliage, and sometimes flowers. Although not as naive as many other herbal writers, he showed little scientific interest concentrating rather on the practical uses of plants and sometimes giving only brief descriptions, perhaps from other primary sources. In all he described some one thousand remedies using approximately six hundred plants and plant products.

Symphytum officinale - Comfrey -from Brunfels - 1530 Dioscorides probably wrote his great herbal in about 64CE (according to Pritzel 77CE). These medicinal and alimentary plants number about a hundred more than all those (medicinal or not) known to the great botanist Theophrastus, and described in his fine botanical work, the Enquiry into Plants, some two centuries before. Theophrastus of Eresos (a village on the Greek island of Lesbos) lived from about 372 to 286BCE. A close friend of Aristotle, he is the earliest known systematic botanical author in Europe. He discussed about 500 plants (or plant products) familiar at that time, including almost forty plants still used in medicine today, and mentioned plants from all regions of the known world, including India, Egypt and Cyrenaica, possibly discovered during the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. Theophrastus drew on the work of Diokles of Karystos (about 300BCE), a fellow-student of Aristotle.

Dioscorides added extensively to the range of plants used in medicine. He was a contemporary of the Roman, Pliny, whose monumental work on natural history (the history of the world) mentions about 1000 different plants. There is no evidence that they met, and Pliny may not have read Dioscorides' work. Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder, was born in Como in 23CE and died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE. A busy Roman official, Pliny was also a prolific author, though only the thirty-seven books of his Historia Naturalis survived. He transcribed the knowledge of his time in accurate and precise detail, uncritically adding myths, legends, superstitions, personal observations, and opinions in a discursive, entertaining, encyclopaedic work. Pliny is less systematic and more credulous than Dioscorides. Pliny's remedies while no more effective are generally more unpleasant.

For almost two millenia Dioscorides was regarded as the ultimate authority on plants and medicine. The plant descriptions in his Peri ulhz iatrikh or De Materia Medica were often adequate for identification, including methods of preparation, medicinal uses, and dosages. There is also a minor work bearing the name of Dioscorides, Peri aplwn farmakwn, but this may not be authentic. Recognising the usefulness of his medical botany and phytography, his readers probably overestimated their worth. In truth, Theophrastus was the scientific botanist; Pliny produced the systematic encyclopaedia of knowledge; and Dioscorides was merely a medical botanist. However Dioscorides achieved overwhelming commendation and approval because his writings addressed the many ills of mankind most usefully.

Pedanius Dioscorides the Greek wrote this De Materia Medica approximately two thousand years ago. In 1655 John Goodyer made an English translation from an early printed version, and in 1933 Robert T Gunther edited this, Hafner Publishing Co, London & New York, printing it. It was probably not corrected against the Greek. This popular version of Goodyer's Dioscorides makes no such attempt either. We eagerly await the comprehensive and scholarly "Dioscorides" from Professor Alain Touwaide based on many original manuscripts.

The main purpose of this new edition is to offer a more accessible text to today's readers. The reader may wish to refer to Greek, Latin, or other versions: including these lies beyond the scope of the present effort. I have not attempted to make the text uniform, and though I have included some sixteenth-century and Linnaean names, many do not indicate current usage. While it is not my intention to contribute to the controversy surrounding the true identities of the plants, minerals, and creatures in De Materia Medica, where available I have suggested possible plant names, with an indication of other plants using the same name today. I will appreciate any pertinent information that has been overlooked, and wish to acknowledge the errors that remain. Thus the proposed herbs provide some possibilities, and the reader is invited to place a personal interpretation upon the material. The illustrations suggest further options in some instances.

This is not a primary resource for medical treatment. Readers should in the first instance obtain medical advice from qualified, registered health professionals. Many treatments considered acceptable two thousand years ago are useless or harmful. This particularly applies to the abortifacients mentioned in the manuscript, most of which contain toxins considered dangerous in the required doses. With all this in mind, I believe the information in this document is still of interest and benefit to us, after all this time.

Tess Anne Osbaldeston, translator and editor
Johannesburg, South Africa,
June 2000
Introductory notes by R.P.Wood.

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