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Catalogue: Pharmaceutics

Blue arrow pointing to the right A Note On Pharmaceutics

The field of pharmacology generated its own specialized literature. There were two major Greek sources for medicinal substances available through Arabic translations: Dioscorides' treatise on materia medica, which described approximately 500 substances, and Galen's treatise on simple remedies. The latter set the format for most Arabic writings on materia medica by giving an alphabetical listing of medicinal substances rather than the confusing classification given by Dioscorides. Medicinal substances in both Antiquity and the medieval Islamic world included not just plants but also minerals and animal substances.

The Arabic literature on pharmacology, however, quickly took a different form from that inherited from the Hellenistic world. A class of literature arose that explained unfamiliar foreign terms for drugs and compiled synonym lists giving equivalent terms in different languages. A large proportion of the plants described by Dioscorides and Galen would not have been known in various regions of the Middle East. The differing climatic conditions of the desert, marsh, mountain and coastal communities meant that species of medicinal plants, as well as animal species and mineral resources, varied greatly from one region to another. Sometimes there were related local species and varieties which could be identified as similar to those described by Dioscorides or Galen, but in some instances the substances described in the Greek sources meant little to an Arab practitioner. Conversely, the broader and different geographic horizons of Islamic writers brought them into contact with new drugs. Traders and travelers played as important a role in the knowledge and development of medicinal substances in the Islamic world as did the treatises of Dioscorides and Galen in their Arabic dress.

It is evident that many medicaments were being used by the ninth century that were unknown in Hellenistic medicine, including camphor, musk, and sal ammoniac, as well as commodities previously unfamiliar to Europe, such as cotton. Most comprehensive of all the Arabic treatises on materia medica was the manual by Ibn al-Bayār (d. 1248), originally from Malaga in the kingdom of Granada. It was an alphabetical guide to over 1,400 medicaments in 2,324 separate entries, taken from his own observations as well as over 260 written sources which he quoted. In addition to having selections from Ibn al-Bayār's manual that were compiled by a hitherto unknown Khidr ibn ‘Isá, known as al-Khaymi (MS A 47). NLM also has several earlier treatises on medicinal substances, one from the ninth century by annā ibn Bukhtīshū‘ (MS A 45.1, item 3), one from the mid-12th century by al-‘Ala'i (MS A 46) and a number by the early 13th-century physician Najīb al-Dīn al-Samarqandī (MS A 82, item 1; MS A 82, item 3; MS A 1.1, item 1; MS A 1.1, item 2) . In addition, there are five treatises (two Arabic and three Persian) written in the 16th and 17th centuries, two Arabic and three Persian (MS A 75; MS P 5.1, item 1; MS P 4; MS P 15)and a number of anonymous tracts on the topic.

In addition to treatises concerned just with medicinal substances, books were also composed listing recipes in which a number of medical substances would be compounded. Such medical formularies were usually arranged into chapters concerned with a particular type of remedy, such as laxatives or salves or eye remedies, and some were prepared specifically for use in hospitals. NLM has in its collection seven different formularies ranging in date of composition from the mid-10th to the late 18th century. Several are important or unique copies.

A third type of pharmaceutical literature combined the discussions of individual medicinal substances with the formularies, usually having the first half of the volume devoted to the former, and the second half to the latter. Of this medical genre, NLM has ten examples, three of which were composed by the same 11th-century prolific writer on pharmaceutics and regimen, Ibn Jazlah, and another three by the 17th-century writer al-Tunakābunī. A particularly outstanding manuscript in the latter category is an illuminated manuscript of a treatise by an Indian court physician, Hakīm ‘Alavī Khān that was possibly prepared as a presentation copy for the Mughal Emperor Muammad Shah (MS P 12).

Yet another distinct form of pharmaceutical composition was that devoted solely to poisons and their antidotes. In this category NLM has in its collection an extremely important treatise composed in the middle of the thirteenth century that deserves further study (MS A 64).

In the following sections of this catalogue, the comprehensive works discussing both simple and compound remedies will be discussed first, followed by those concerned only with material medica, then those presenting formularies of compound remedies without the discussions of individual substances, concluding with the treatises concerned with poisons and their antidotes.

For an introduction to Islamic pharmaceutical literature, see Martin Levey, Early Arabic Pharmacology: An Introduction Based on Ancient and Medieval Sources (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973); M.M.Sadek, The Arabic Materia Medica of Dioscorides (St Jean-Chrystosome, Quebec: Les Editions du Sphinx, 1983); and A. Dietrich, Dioscurides Triiumphans: Ein anonymer arabischer Kommentar (12 Jahrh. n. Chr.) zur Materia Medica (Göttingen, 1988). See also, B. Lewin, 'Adwiya' and 'Akrabadhin' in EI (2nd ed.), vol. 1, pp. 212-4 and pp. 344-5; and Remke Kruk, 'Nabat' in EI (2nd ed.), vol.. 7, pp. 831-4.

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