The Vienne Dioscurides: Early Pharmacology

There was a time where innovations in medicine moved slowly, but there were also brilliant men who set foundational standards that were not questioned for hundreds of years.

Before Big Pharma and complex machinery, society was quite simple and, shall we say, organic. Much of the medicine in the world to help the sick came in the form of various plants and herbs found natively, and that was the case up until the Renaissance period in Europe.

For 15 centuries, in fact, healing agents really didn’t change much after a comprehensive manuscript was formed and compiled by a Roman military surgeon by the name of Dioscurides. Dioscurides lived in the first century A.D. and served in the military of the Roman Empire under Emperor Nero, and as a military officer in an expansive empire, Dioscurides was a heavy traveler, according to Herman Law.

As he traveled throughout the Empire, we started taking notes on the various plants and herbs he came across that were native to the areas in which he traveled. He would create accurate illustrations of the herbs and plants, describe each and give their medicinal values either as sanative or harmful. Hundreds of these species were observed and described in this manuscript, making it the most comprehensive “medical book” up to that time, and – it turned out – the most dependable resource for about 1,500 years, known in the early years as De Materia Medica (Materials of Medicine).

Dioscruides’ work was published sometime around 70 A.D., but the oldest known copy of the manuscript comes from the sixth century A.D. and was first called the Anicia Juliana codex, named for the Byzantine princess for whom the manuscript was created as a gift of gratitude. The princess was the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Olybrius, and was a patron and supporter of many of the arts that were occurring in the empire, and this codex (about 1,000 pages) was a gift specifically for her support of the building of a church in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey).

After that time, the manuscript went missing for most of the next nine centuries, until a monk in Constantinople named Nathanael asked John Chortasmenos to rebound the work in 1406. In 1423 was another sighting, as Aurispa, a traveler from Sicily came through Constantinople and witnessed the codex. Thirty years later, the city fell to the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, and the codex that had been solely in the original Greek had some Arabic and Turkish entries added to it.

Then, a century later, Hebrew names were added to the codex when Hamon, physician to Suleyman the Magnificent, came to be in possession of the manuscript. Finally, however, in 1569, Emperor Maximilian II received the manuscript and he dedicated it to what is now the Austria National Library in Vienna, where it gathered its current name of Vienna Dioscurides, though it is in the library as Codex Vindobonensis med. gr. 1.

The manuscript was also used as the basis of the Pope Alexander VII Dioscurides, which is currently housed in the Vatican Library. For its historical significance, it was listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme Register in 1997.