Pedanius Dioscorides

This article is about the physician, pharmacologist and botanist. For the philosopher, see Dioscorides (Stoic). For the admiral, see Dioscurides (nephew of Antigonus I).
Pedanius Dioscorides

Dioscorides as depicted in a 1240 Arabic edition of De Materia Medica
Born c. 40 AD
Anazarbus, Cilicia, Asia Minor
Died c. 90 AD
Other names Dioscurides
Occupation Army physician, pharmacologist, botanist
Known for De Materia Medica

Pedanius Dioscorides (Ancient Greek: Πεδάνιος Διοσκουρίδης, Pedianos Dioskorides; c. 40 – 90 AD) was a Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist, and author of De Materia Medica (Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς) —a 5-volume Greek encyclopedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal substances (a pharmacopeia), that was widely read for more than 1,500 years. He was employed as a medic in the Roman army.


A native of Anazarbus, Cilicia, Asia Minor, Dioscorides practised medicine in Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero. He was a surgeon with the Roman army, which gave him the opportunity to travel extensively, at the same time seeking medicinal substances (plants and minerals) from all over the Roman Empire. The name Pedanius is Roman, suggesting that an aristocrat of that name sponsored him to become a Roman citizen. He dedicated his medical books to Laecanius Arius, a medical practitioner of Tarsus in Cilicia, so he may have studied medicine there.[lower-alpha 1][2][3]

De Materia Medica

Blackberry from the 6th-century Vienna Dioscurides manuscript
Main article: De Materia Medica

Between AD 50 and 70 [4] Dioscorides wrote a five-volume book in his native Greek, Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς, known more widely by its Latin title De Materia Medica ("On Medical Material") which became the precursor to all modern pharmacopeias.[5]

Cover of an early printed version of De Materia Medica, Lyon, 1554

In contrast to many classical authors, Dioscorides' works were not "rediscovered" in the Renaissance, because his book had never left circulation; indeed, with regard to Western materia medica through the early modern period, Dioscorides' text eclipsed the Hippocratic corpus.[6] In the medieval period, De Materia Medica was circulated in Greek, as well as Latin and Arabic translation.[7] While being reproduced in manuscript form through the centuries, it was often supplemented with commentary and minor additions from Arabic and Indian sources. A number of illustrated manuscripts of De Materia Medica survive. The most famous of these is the lavishly illustrated Vienna Dioscurides, produced in Constantinople in 512/513 AD. Densely illustrated Arabic copies survive from the 12th and 13th centuries, while Greek manuscripts survive today in the monasteries of Mount Athos.[8]

De Materia Medica is the prime historical source of information about the medicines used by the Greeks, Romans, and other cultures of antiquity. The work also records the Dacian[9] and Thracian[10] names for some plants, which otherwise would have been lost. The work presents about 600 plants in all,[11] although the descriptions are sometimes obscurely phrased, leading to comments such as: "Numerous individuals from the Middle Ages on have struggled with the identity of the recondite kinds",[12] while some of the botanical identifications of Dioscorides' plants remain merely guesses.

De Materia Medica formed the core of the European pharmacopeia through the 19th century, suggesting that "the timelessness of Dioscorides' work resulted from an empirical tradition based on trial and error; that it worked for generation after generation despite social and cultural changes and changes in medical theory".[6]

The Dioscorea genus of plants, which includes the yam, was named after him by Linnaeus.



In Literature

In Voltaire's Candide, the title character's injuries received at the hands of the Bulgarian army, into which he had been conscripted, are healed using "emollients taught by Dioscorides."

See also


  1. The dedication, translated by Scarborough and Nutton,[1] began "At your insistence I have assembled my material into five books, and I dedicate my compendium to you in fulfilment of a debt of gratitude for your sentiments towards me".[2]


  1. Scarborough and Nutton, 1982
  2. 1 2 Stobart, Anne (2014). Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine: From Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. A&C Black. p. 193. ISBN 978-1-4411-8418-4.
  3. Borzelleca, Joseph F.; Lane, Richard W. (2008). "The Art, the Science, and the Seduction of Toxicology: an Evolutionary Development". In Hayes, Andrew Wallace. Principles and methods of toxicology (5th ed.). Taylor & Francis. p. 13.
  4. "Greek Medicine". National Institutes of Health, USA. 16 September 2002. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  5. Forbes, 2013
  6. 1 2 De Vos (2010) "European Materia Medica in Historical Texts: Longevity of a Tradition and Implications for Future Use", Journal of Ethnopharmacology 132(1):28–47
  7. Some detail about medieval manuscripts of De Materia Medica at pages xxix–xxxi in Introduction to Dioscorides Materia Medica by TA Osbaldeston, year 2000.
  8. Selin, Helaine (2008). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Springer. p. 1077.
  9. Nutton, Vivian (2004). Ancient Medicine. Routledge.. Page 177.
  10. Murray, J. (1884). The Academy. Alexander and Shephrard.. Page 68.
  11. Krebs, Robert E.; Krebs, Carolyn A. (2003). Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Ancient World. Greenwood Publishing Group.. Pages 75–76.
  12. Isely, Duane (1994). One hundred and one botanists. Iowa State University Press.


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