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Pharmacy and Drug Lore in Antiquity: Greece, Rome, Byzantium

Pharmacy and Drug Lore in Antiquity: Greece, Rome, Byzantium by John Scarborough. Variorum Collected Studies. Farnham, VT: Ashgate Variorum; c. 2011. Pp. xxviii + Hardcover; 354 pages. ISBN: 978-0-7546-5954-9. $144.95.

John Scarborough is a leading historian of early medicine, especially pharmacy, whose many articles have beenare published in an impressively wide range of journals and collections, from Clinics in Plastic Surgery to Les écoles médicales à Rome. Such diversity of publication outlets effectively means that those interested in historical herbal lore are unlikely to have savored the full range of Scarborough’s scholarly insights, especially with those pieces written before the advent of online databases. Happily, some of his most important publications are collectively reprinted in Pharmacy and Drug Lore in Antiquity, a tome that all who have a serious interest in herbs historically and even presently should have on their bookshelves and in their brain’s databases.

The first study on the pharmacology of sacred medicinal plants is well-chosen as the lead article. The Greek epoch-setting trend towards rational medicine exclusive of religious-magic causation is off-set by the acceptance of “magicolegendary and empiricial-practical ways.” On one hand, there is the 5th century (BCE) Greek philosopher Empedocles’ straight-forward statement: “You will learn drugs (pharmaca) for ailments and for help against old age.” On the other, Scarborough argues that Greek inquiry “applied levels from pure ‘magic’ to utter rationalism.” His evidence derives from a lucid discussions about the historic usages of opium poppy (Papaver somniferum, Papaveraceae; presenting a strong case identification of the plant called moly as poppy, at least in Homer), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium, Lamiaceae), chaste tree (Vitex agnus- castus, VerbenaceaeL.), purple orchid (Orchis mascula, OrchidaceaeL), and deadly carrot (Thapsia garganica, Apiaceae L.), among other examples. Extending his evidence back to Mesopotamian and Egyptian medicine, he demonstrates a pharmacy that blended folk lore, magical allusions, and keen rational observations. Scarborough’s reflections on magical papyri appropriately summarize Greek pharmacy as combining “vividly the ordinary and sophisticated command of drug compounding by the common people.” Drugs may be from the hands of the gods, but people learned and applied them as reasonable therapeutic addresses. Through deftly applied scholarship, Scarborough proves—and I use this word advisedly—that Greek medicine’s attitude towards rational medicine was a monumental, historical achievement.

Other studies deal with specific ailments (burn treatments), drugs (e.g., opium, cantharidin), drug trade (between Rome and East Asia and Africa), pharmacy writers (Hippocratic writers, Theophrastus, Nicander, Criton, and Galen), early Byzantine pharmacology, and herbs connected to Byzantine gardens. The last study on Byzantine gardens was delivered by Scarborough in a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks. In his paper, Scarborough focused on a 12th century “dream-garden” manual from which he concluded that Byzantine “doctors, pharmacologists, herbalists, and farmers not only were by interested (and literate),” but they extended their skills to cultivated and wild plants. The Byzantines’ harvesting and preparations were “well balanced by city and countryside” applied knowledge.

Aloe (Aloe spp., Liliaceae) drug trade indicates Roman reliance on Eastern drugs and the importance of the Indian Ocean island of Socotra as a depot. Scarborough describes Theophrastus, a successor to Aristotle as Head of the Lyceum, as a leading conveyor of drug lore; another study shows that Pliny the Elder, a Roman, considered “drugs … are to be understood as an integral part of the lore of food.” Pliny, Scarborough said, had an “enthusiastic, breathless mood” for his “tumbling of facts, tales, stories told for amusement, anecdotes, [and] legends” about plants as foods and medicines. Scarborough makes a case for Criton, whose medical works are lost, to be the same author who wrote a history of Trajan’s Dacian Wars. Known only through quotations ascribed to him by later authors, Scarborough calls Criton “…an astute pharmacologist who employed the best written sources of his time, and who was careful with his patients and shrewd in his preparations of drug recipes.”

Scarborough directs the reader’s attention to animal and mineral drugs as well as the field of toxicology with a thorough overview of Nicander’s works (Theriaca and Alexipharmaca) on poisons from snakes, vipers, plants, spiders, scorpions, insects, and myriapods. Spiders not only had a poisonous bite but also, if properly used, were medicinal agentses.

Modern writers on medicinal herbs often include a near-obligatory paragraph or two on the plant’s history, all too often culled from superficial secondary sources, such as Maude Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. Much better— and useful!—information can come from publications by this excellent historian of pharmacy. Because of the diversity of wide-ranging studies, it is difficult to convey the importance of John Scarborough to the history of drugs. The salient point is that Scarborough’s meticulous attention to detail, combined with a thorough command of ancient languages, mastery of biographical data, and lively, charming writing style, deserve the attention of all people who are interested in herbal medicine, whether concentrating on present science or not. This volume begins with an insightful introduction by the author, and concludes with a long, rich, complete, and impressive list of his publications, together with a full index.

—John M. Riddle, PhD Distinguished Professor Emeritus Department of History North Carolina State University Raleigh, NC