Pedanius Dioscorides Biography (40-c. 90)

physician, pharmacologist

In the first century A.D., Dioscorides collected all the available information of his time about every animal, vegetable, mineral, and insect substance that could be used to treat human health problems. He publishedthis information, which included descriptions of nearly 600 plants and almosta thousand drugs, in five volumes known as De materia medica. Two later volumes on poisons were also attributed to Dioscorides. His books were often illustrated with precise drawings, and they were translated into many languages, including Latin, Arabic, Italian, French, Spanish, German, and Persian. They were widely distributed throughout the western world in antiquity. Beginning in the sixth century A.D., some editions were alphabetized for quick reference, which made his works into early medical dictionaries.

Although Dioscorides was Greek, he spoke his native tongue with an accent because he was born in Cilicia, an ancient state located in modern-day Turkey. The Roman Empire had conquered much of the Western world in his day, and Dioscorides served in the Roman army of Nero as a physician. As a result of his wide travels, his practical experience, and his extensive reading, he was ableto collect the information that went into De materia medica.

In De materia medica, Dioscorides deliberately attempted to create anexhaustive, structured account of every known substance that could help people with their medical problems. His entries were very practical and plainly written, and some of his descriptions of plants are recognizable today. He described a plant or mineral so that people could recognize it when they looked for it in the field. He explained the properties of each medical material andhow they acted on the human body. He also explained how to prepare the material and administer it to a patient. In his entry on opium, for example, he explained that it could be used to reduce pain, to make a person sleepy,and to treat a chronic cough. He also said that overdoses of opium could put patients into a deep sleep. He explained that the juice from the opiumseed capsules was different from the extract from the entire plant, and he detailed how the opium seed capsules should be cut open properly.

In addition to describing and explaining the uses of opium, Dioscorides alsomentioned such plants as cannabis (marijuana), peppermint, water hemlock, andwild blackberries. He discussed how minerals like mercury, arsenic, copper oxide, and lead acetate could be used for remedies. He showed how some medicines could be prepared by blending them into milk or honey. He wrote on a number of antidotes for snakebites, and he had a description of how the clay fromthe island of Lemnos could be used to heal wounds and ulcers. He had remediesfor over 950 health problems, including pain, roundworms, and the common cough. He taught his readers how to determine if a drug was watered down, and hewas one of the first writers to accurately describe the disease symptoms ofthe Black Death pandemics, which were to ravage Europe for centuries. Such practical information was to make his work important to doctors for 16 centuries.

In spite of the usefulness of some of Dioscorides' writing, many of the healing powers that he claimed for his medical materials are little more than superstition. For example, he recommended applying bedbugs to treat patients withmalaria. Much of his work has been superseded and is today considered to bean historical curiosity.

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