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Determined Scholar Reassembles a 2nd-Century Medical Manual

Galen conversing with Hippokrates in an Anagni, Italy, fresco (photo by Nina Aldin Thune, via Wikimedia)
Galen conversing with Hippokrates in an Anagni, Italy, fresco (photo by Nina Aldin Thune, via Wikimedia)

The 11-volume On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs by 2nd-century Greek physician Galen, with its ancient guidelines for pharmacology, was standard reading for centuries in the medical profession. Now one of the earliest translations has been digitally reassembled, potentially providing new insights into the origins of modern medicine.

As thoroughly reported earlier this month by Marck Schrope for the New York TimesGrigory Kessel, a Syriac scholar at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, happened to notice the similarity between a 6th-century Galen book in Syriac he was examining in 2013 owned by a Baltimore collector, and a leaf he’d recently seen at Harvard University. In the years since he has led an effort to track down the seven missing folio leaves from the Simple Drugs edition, which took him on journeys to 10 different libraries from the Vatican to a Sinai monastery in Egypt. The final piece of the puzzle, found at the National Library of France in Paris, was digitized last month. The Digital Galen Syriac Palimpset by Galen of Pergamon, as he’s often known, can now be found online under a Creative Commons license, enhanced through technology provided by the Walters Art Museum.

Pages from the Syriac Galen Palimpsest (via digitalgalen.net)
Pages from the Syriac Galen Palimpsest (via digitalgalen.net)
Pages from the Syriac Galen Palimpsest (via digitalgalen.net)
Pages from the Syriac Galen Palimpsest (via digitalgalen.net)
Pages from the Syriac Galen Palimpsest (via digitalgalen.net)
Pages from the Syriac Galen Palimpsest (via digitalgalen.net)

Why it required such thorough digitizing is because at one point, in medieval times, this particular edition of Simple Drugs was turned into a hymn book and the forward-thinking prescriptions like exercise for disease and bloodletting were lost beneath religious songs. The scanned folios are available in various colors and contrasts to bring the words out. However, there are only a very small number of scholars of Syriac, an Aramaic dialect once widespread around the Fertile Crescent, so the translation and study of the text will be slow.

It may seem like there’s a new digitization project every week, but Kessel’s research has the potential to tell us something new about science in the ancient world, and how the medicine we have today evolved. It’s a much more direct translation from Galen’s original words than anything previously known. These kinds of projects are also essential for scholarly access, considering the bulk of the text is with a private collector. In this way it’s similar to the recent digitizing of the 16th-century Codex Mendoza that has long been out of Mexico since the Spanish conquest, giving Mexican scholars better access. The Galen project is also reconstructing a lost narrative like the massive digitization of all the materials related to the development of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. These are all completely different undertakings in terms of their subjects and contexts, but such projects emphasize how this obscure medical book — with its pieces scattered around the world — can contribute meaningfully to our contemporary knowledge.

Pages from the Syriac Galen Palimpsest (via digitalgalen.net)
Pages from the Syriac Galen Palimpsest (via digitalgalen.net)

View the digitized Syriac Galen Palimpsest online.

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