Categories
Antiquity Medical books

The Top 5 of Influential Medical (Text)books I: Antiquity

Today is the 25th World Book and Copyright Day by the UNESCO!! For that occasion I present you the “Top 5 Infuential Medical (Text)books from Antiquity”.

The World Book Day

… is on the 23rd April because it is the birth and death day of many famous writers: Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare died today in 1616. Furthermore, it is Saint George Day, where traditionally in Catalonia roses and books are gifted.

Here you can find every famous person, who died on the 23th April.

Fun fact: World Book Day

Did you know that…. Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date but not on the same day. Sounds weird, right? But there is a simple explanation: Spain already used the Gregorian calendar, which is the one currently used in most countries, and English still used the Julian calendar. So Shakespeare died on the 3th May of the Gregorian calendar.

The Top 5…

Books in general are one essential source for historians: They allow to store knowledge over centuries and even thousands of years: So they connect us with their authors and their thoughts.

Here is my chronologically ordered top 5 list:

  1. Edwin Smith Papyrus (c. 1500 BC) – The world’s oldest surgical textbook
  2. Corpus Hippocraticum (c. 400 BC-200 AD) – The basis for Western Medicine
  3. Huangdi Neijing (c. 300 BC) – The basis for (Traditional) Chinese Medicine.
  4. Sushruta Samhita (c. 300 BC) – One of the fundamental text of Ayurveda
  5. De Materia Medica (50-70 AD) by Dioscorides: The basis for pharmacology

Edwin Smith Papyrus

It is the world’s oldest surviving surgical document.
Recto Column 6 (right) and 7 (left) of the papyrus discuss facial trauma. (Cases 12-20): at the New York Academy of Medicine

… is named after the US Egyptologist Edwin Smith (1822-1906) who bought it in 1862, and is the oldest known surgical treatise on trauma: 48 cases are mentioned and it includes the first known mention of the human brain.

Compared to the Ebers Papyrus and the London Medical Papyrus, it is not based on magic but on a rational and scientific approach, which does not conflict with the use of magic in medicine.

Its authorship is debated: It is said to be written mainly by one writer and a small section by another one. Due to its language it could be a copy of an older manuscript, which is without evidence said to be from Imhotep, a famous architect, high priest and physician from the Old Kingdom.

In 1930 it was translated into English by James Henry Breasted (1865-1935).

Corpus Hippocraticum

Nothing represents the “Corpus Hippocraticum” better then its namesake.

The Hippocratic Corpus is the “bible” of medicine: written in Ancient Greece over centuries (5th century BC – 1st century AD) and by at least 19 authors, none of them proved to be by Hippocrates himself, and presenting different opinions on medicine and medical treatment.

It contains textbooks, lectures, research, notes and philosophical essays and it was written for professionals and laymen alike.

Diseases are seen from a scientific and not religious approach. Its most famous section is the Hippocratic Oath, that I covered here.

Huangdi Neijing

A copy from ~ 12th century

In its importance in Chinese medicine the Huangdi Neijing is comparable to the Corpus Hippocraticum: as it set the fundament to Chinese medicine for more than 2000 years. Disease is no longer explained with demons but Ying & Yang, Qi and the 5 Elements.

The work consists of two texts and is written like a conversion between the mythical Yellow Emperor and 6 of his ministers: The first and most important part, the “Suwen”, sets the theoretical and diagnostic basic for Chinese Medicine; the second part “Lingshu” focuses on acupuncture.

Sushruta Samhita

A 12th-13th century copy at the L.A. Country Museum of Art

This text in ancient Sanskrit is a foundament of Ayurveda, the Indian traditional medicine. Furthermore, its the first to suggest that future surgeons shall learn the anatomy of the human body by dissecting dead bodies.

Susruta, a physician and teacher at the school in Kashi, is the author of the oldest 5 chapters and he presents there the teaching of his guru Divodasa. The second and newer part “Uttaratantra! was written by Nagarjuna.

By its translation into Arabic during the early 8th century it reached Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. The Sushruta Samhita was also used in Cambodia and Tibet.

Kaviraj Kunjalal Bhishagratna was the first to fully translate – in 3 Volumes- it into English: Vol. 1 in 1907, Vol. 2 in 1911 and Vol. 3 in 1916.

De Materia Medica


“Mandrake” Folio 90 from the the Naples Dioscurides, a 7th century manuscript (Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale, Cod. Gr. 1).

Pedanius Dioscorides served in the Roman army as Greek physician and wrote “De materia medica” from 50-70 AD. His work became the book on pharmacology in Europe and the Middle East for more than 1500 years, and became the basis for all modern pharmacopoeias.

This extraordinary role is due to its precise recipe-like description of over 600 plants and around 1000 medicines.

Unlike other classical authors, De materia medica was not “rediscovered” in the Renaissance, because it had never been “forgotten”. Moreover, it was one of the first scientific works that was translated into Arabic in the 9th century Bagdad.

Here is its English translation.

Spoiler Alert

The follow-up article will be on “The Top 5 of Medical (Text)books in the Middle Ages” and include the “Lorsch Pharmacopoeia” (8th-9th century), the first compendium on monastic medicine, and “The Canon of Medicine” (~ 1000 AD) by Ibn Sina, better known as Avicenna.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *