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  • De materia medica by Pedanius Dioscorides
  • Stata Norton
Lily Y. Beck, trans. De materia medica by Pedanius Dioscorides. Hildesheim, Germany, Olms-Weidmann, 2005. 540 pp. €78.00.

Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus in Cilicia wrote his book, known as an herbal or materia medica, about the middle of the first century CE. It was copied repeatedly throughout Europe, with some variations, over the next 1500 years. From 1906 to 1914, Dioscorides' Greek text was published in a definitive edition by Max Wellmann from various extant versions. Now [End Page 218] Lily Y. Beck has rendered Wellmann's Greek edition into English. This is the only English translation of Dioscorides' remarkable book since the seventeenth century. About 1655, the botanist John Goodyer wrote an English translation from one of the Greek manuscripts. His version, edited by Robert T. Gunther, was not published until 1933. The most famous today of the early editions of Dioscorides is the Juliana Anicia Codex, now in Vienna, which was published about 512 CE. The edition prepared by Max Wellman, following Dioscorides' original organization, is divided into five "books": the first on medicinal plants affecting the senses of olfaction and taste; the second on animals or animal parts used for their medicinal value; the third on roots, juices, and seeds; the fourth containing more roots and herbs; and the fifth on various kinds of medicinal wines and minerals. The unique aspect of Dioscorides' method of presentation was that he listed plants not alphabetically by name, as did many herbals, but in groups with similar pharmacologic actions in the body, listing together types of plants such as those with sedative or anti-inflammatory properties. While Dioscorides did not follow this system for many of his remedies, his few instances show a sophisticated appreciation of the effects of plants beyond the Hippocratic/Galenic philosophy that all diseases and treatments were based on understanding the four humors of the body. This unique contribution of Dioscorides has been described in detail by John Riddle (Dioscorides on Pharmacy and Medicine, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1985).

The translation by Lily Y. Beck makes Wellmann's Greek edition of Dioscorides' book available in English. Beck has done a remarkable job. The footnotes to the text are extensive and of great value in explaining obscure points. Over 550 plants, 80 animals or animal parts, and about 90 minerals are described. In the translation, each plant is listed by its Greek name followed by the English equivalent and the scientific name. This is followed by the translation of Dioscorides' text containing a brief description of the plant (habit of growth; description of leaves, roots, flowers, and seeds; and geographic location of those sources that offered the best pharmacologic activity). Then the part used, its properties, and the method of preparation and medical uses are given. Various types of adulteration of the product, especially for plants not grown locally, are often mentioned. Animals are treated somewhat differently. Most animals are not described in any detail, presumably because their identification was not as uncertain as that of herbs. A wide range of animals and animal parts are used, from locusts to milk from domestic animals and nursing women. Minerals and derivatives are described primarily by geographic location, such as earth from Chios or Lemnos, and methods of preparation are given in some detail, such as the preparation of verdigris (cupric acetate) from vinegar and copper. After the translation, two important indices to the book are appended: an index [End Page 219] of plants, animals, and minerals, and an index of the medical conditions for which the agents were recommended by Dioscorides.

The translation contains some awkward sentence constructions that may result in any translation in which a close approximation to the original language is used. In addition, there are many typographical errors in the text, but these do not alter the importance of having a new English translation of Dioscorides' book.

Stata Norton
Emeritus Professor, Department of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutics, University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, Kansas 66160.


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