Ancient Botanical Knowledge as Living Knowledge: Medicinal Plants of Antiquity

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Project Contributor: Alain Touwaide

Credit: Emanuela Appetiti

Dr Alain Touwaide at work in the Library at Soliman the Magnificent Mosque, Istanbul, examining ancient herbals and documents from which he recovers information about ancient therapeutic uses of plants Credit: Emanuela Appetiti

The “Medicinal Plants of Antiquity” program  is recovering the ancient therapeutic practices of healers recorded by physicians of Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages, such as Hippocrates, Galen, and Avicenna. This research, which is conducted at the National Library in Rome, Italy, is documenting and reviving part of the heritage of humankind: the knowledge of medicinal plants and particular adaptations that were used during past ages, in order to see how it may be used today. Knowledge of this period is all too often forgotten and, in contemporary society, even the awareness of this knowledge is disappearing. A related project involves texts and plant representations from 15th and 16th century printed herbals that are collected at the National Library of Rome and further analyzed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, USA, where they are added to a growing database. This program is part of a comprehensive study on the botany, ethnobotany, and ethnopharmacology of the ancient Mediterranean world. Medicinal plant knowledge that was used from antiquity to the Renaissance in the Mediterranean area is now all but forgotten and threatened with extinction, but may have a function today as a basis for understanding how adaptations of plant use in the past may be applicable in the present.

In this program, the historical uses of natural resources, which are rooted in an experience accumulated over the centuries, are brought to light through an in-depth study of the constitution, transmission, and transformation of knowledge over time, from antiquity to the birth of modern science. The program champions a new model of data analysis: instead of considering historical data as “fossils”, it proposes to consider them as living knowledge that will lead to a better understanding of human relationships with the environment. This information might even help generate a new type of relationship with the environment that draws from the wisdom of past experience.

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One Comment

  1. Ortixia Dilts November 14, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    The Medicinal Plants of Antiquity research was conducted in Italy at the National Library of Rome and at the Library of the historical botanical garden at Padua from 2003 through 2006. Research has made it possible to collect 70,000+ images. Scholars of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions are now processing this massive collection. They have digitized all the images and are now mounting them on the Web site Moreover, they are adding metadata to the images: historical information about the books whose images are displayed on the site, their authors and publishers, and the names of the plants in a broad range of languages, from classical Greek to modern languages (English, French, German and Italian).
    Pursuing and expanding his activity, Alain Touwaide, working in collaboration with anthropologist Emanuela Appetiti in the context of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions that they have created and based at the Botany department of the Smithsonian Institution (, is compiling a library of ancient Greek medical texts, be their works already published or new ones, overlooked in earlier scholarship or still unknown. They have created a new Web site specifically devoted to such texts:, which offers a collection of links to digital versions of Greek medical texts known through earlier publications. Check it back often, as new items are being uploaded every week! Piece by piece, Touwaide and his collaborators are covering the whole medical production of the Mediterranean tradition, from the most remote antiquity to modern science and scholarship.

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