History of Medicine
National Library of Medicine
National Institutes of Health
Greek Medicine
I swear by Apollo Physician... Greek Medicine from the Gods to Galen

Dioscorides: Early Pharmacology

Woodcut portrait of Dioscorides, seated, facing to the right holding plants, by an unknown artist, circa 1550.  NLM/IHM image B07205. Dioscorides of Anazarbus was a Greek physician born in southeast Asia Minor in the Roman Empire in the first few decades C.E. During his lifetime, Dioscorides traveled extensively seeking medicinal substances from all over the Roman and Greek world. He benefited greatly from the ease of travel across wide stretches of territory under the control of the Roman Empire at the height of its growth.

Between about 50-70 C.E., he wrote his fundamental work, Peri ulhV iatrikhV, known in Latin as De materia medica. This five book study focused upon "the preparation, properties, and testing of drugs" and became the most central pharmacological work in Europe and the Middle East for the next sixteen centuries.

As was the case with many Greek medical texts, De materia medica was treated as dogma for many years. By the mid-16th century, however, his message that investigation and experimentation were crucial to pharmacology began to emerge and modern research into medicines began.

Dioscorides. Περι υλης ιατρικης (Codex Vindobonensis - Med Gr. 1, ca. 1400, facsimile, Graz: Akademische Druck - u. Verlagstalt, 1965-1970)

Page from a facsimile of a manuscript by Dioscorides known as Codex Vindobonensis showing an onion in the center of the page surrounded by text in Greek with some words in Arabic. (Codex Vindobonensis Med. Gr. 1, ca. 1400; facsimile, Graz: Akademische Druck - U. Verlagsanstalt, 1965 - 1970; Courtesy of the National Library of Austria). NLM Call number: WZ 290 D594c. This early 15th-century manuscript of Dioscorides has Arabic glosses beside the plant.

Dioscorides. Περι υλης ιατρικης. (Venice: Aldus Manutius, Romanus, July 1499).

A text page in Greek of the poem Theriaca by Nicander in Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica (Venice: House of Aldus Manutius, 1499).  NLM Call number: WZ 230 D594p 1499. This first Greek edition of Dioscorides was printed by Aldus Manutius, as was the case for so many Greek authors.

Dioscorides. Acerca de la materia medicinal, y de los venenos mortiferos. (Salamanca: Mathias Gast., 1566).

Illustrated page from Dioscorides’ Acerca de la materia medicinal, y de los venenos mortiferos. (Salamanca: Mathias Gast, 1566).  At the top of the page is a woodcut illustration of seven black rats huddled together; at the bottom is a woodcut illustration of a farm scene with a soman milking a cow on the left and a man churning butter on the right with two dogs and other livestock and a house in the background.  NLM Call number WZ 240 D594dmS 1566. This Spanish edition of Dioscorides is one of the many illustrated editions which came out in the 16th century. Dioscorides included animal products in his medicines along with plants and minerals.

Next >>