A Syriac Galen.

Mark Schrope has a riveting NY Times story that begins:

The first time Grigory Kessel held the ancient manuscript, its animal-hide pages more than 1,000 years old, it seemed oddly familiar.

A Syriac scholar at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, Dr. Kessel was sitting in the library of the manuscript’s owner, a wealthy collector of rare scientific material in Baltimore. At that moment, Dr. Kessel realized that just three weeks earlier, in a library at Harvard University, he had seen a single orphaned page that was too similar to these pages to be coincidence.

He realized he had seen one of the missing pages from the Galen manuscript he was holding, the oldest known copy of On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs, and went on a quest to find all of them. There’s a discussion of the importance of translation in early times:

Much of “Simple Drugs” was eventually translated into Syriac, a form of Aramaic used by Middle Eastern Christian communities. The undertext of the manuscript in Baltimore, most likely from the ninth century A.D., is a copy of the first Syriac translation, itself painstakingly completed in the sixth century A.D. by Sergius of Reshaina, a Syriac physician and priest.

“Today, it doesn’t look to be special when somebody translates one language to another, but in those days, it was indeed a great achievement,” Dr. Kessel said. “He had to create vocabulary, to find Syriac words to correspond to this Greek medical vocabulary.”

By the sixth century, Syriac-speaking Christians were spreading east from Turkey through Syria, Iraq and Iran. They needed translations of Greek scholarly work, partly to support missionary work like running hospitals.

“Simple Drugs” was a large work, an 11-book treatise. Sergius’s translations of Galen’s text were copied and recopied for centuries, and eventually became a bridge for moving the medical expertise of the ancient Greeks to Islamic societies. Syriac texts were much easier than Greek ones to translate into Arabic. […]

Scholars are eager to compare the Syriac material to existing copies of “Simple Drugs” written in Greek, all of which appear to be centuries younger than the Galen Palimpsest and much further removed from the original.

The whole thing is well worth reading. Thanks, Bonnie!


  1. Terrific story. Sergius of Reshaina seems to be סרגיוס מראש העין, Sergius of Ras al-Ayn(“head of the spring”), or Serê Kanîyê in Kurdish, a town on the Syrian-Turkish border. It’s been sacked regularly for a millennium or so, a known phenomenon in these parts.

  2. Glad you liked it, and thanks for the Ras al-Ayn explanation!

  3. J. W. Brewer says

    As often happens with these palimpsests, I assume whoever overwrote the undertext had no particular reason to believe it was of any particular importance or uniqueness (and quite possibly it wasn’t because there were at the time multiple other copies of the same thing which happened not to survive the subsequent nine or ten centuries).

    The article notes that the Galenian theories of medicine do not always stack up well by modern scientific standards but stays away from the obvious question of whether a patient would as a statistical matter be better off just singing hymns from the overwritten text than following Galen’s recommended course of treatment.

  4. Ras al-Ayn(“head of the spring”)

    and it is a very special spring too, one of the strongest mineral hot springs in the whole Fertile Crescent … the legendary healing powers made it a place for a famous physician and intellectual to live, even though it was far from the era’s centers of knowledge

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    My favourite Galenical factoid is that he believed that the brain was an organ for the production of mucus.

    Of course, in the case of many individuals he was quite right.

  6. Bathrobe says

    Didn’t Plato believe that the power of the soul resides in a moist substance whose true home is in the brain, which is connected with the penis via a channel through the centre of the spine? The soul fluid of the brain is drawn down the spinal passage and ejaculated in the form of semen. Is this the basis of Galen’s belief?

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    @Bathrobe: dunno. Sounds exceedingly plausible, though …


    Some years ago the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal (traditionally more unbuttoned then than during the rest of the year) had an article suggesting that there was a climacteric in the history of medicine about the year 1900. Prior to that date, if you went to see a doctor, you were on average less likely to recover than if you had stayed away; after that date, more likely.

    Two unsettling thoughts arising from this:

    There have been *some* reliably effective remedies since long before 1900, so other treatments must have been bringing down the average quite a bit.

    In most cultures during virtually all of history prior to 1900 the medical profession has generally enjoyed high levels of prestige and public trust …

  8. Doctors in 1880-1920 or so knew they had no effective treatments (well, a handful: quinine, the smallpox vaccination, ipecac syrup, things like that), so they became specialists in diagnosis and prognosis. If you got sick, you went to the doctor (or vice versa) to find out what you had and whether it would go away, would benefit from primary treatment (nursing and the like), or would kill you regardless. Those were very useful things to know both for the patient and for their family or other support system.

    Then, of course, there was the danger of catching a disease from the doctor (or the hospital he put you in).

  9. Doctors in 1880-1920 or so knew they had no effective treatments (well, a handful: quinine, the smallpox vaccination, ipecac syrup, things like that), so they became specialists in diagnosis and prognosis.

    I get irritated when my colleagues in the inpatient specialties push back about accepting obviously-sick patients without a diagnosis from me (in the Emergency Department); yes, folks, diagnosis is still one of your core competencies, you cannot delegate it all to us. (I admit the idea is a bit flattering!). The reduction in the amount of day-to-day diagnosing for many doctors is probably something that has changed since 1920.

    And John Cowan’s right, people value getting a better understanding of what’s happening to them. Often the reassurance that what is happening is not serious, that they’re not going to die from a hydrocele or that guttate psoriasis will settle on its own, is an uncomplicated, valuable thing a doctor can provide, now as in 1880.

    Though I certainly don’t feel at all useful or that there is much value in medicine there and then, when I’m explaining that someone’s husband or father has a large intracranial bleed as a side-effect of the medication to break down the clot that caused his heart attack, and that the neurosurgeons don’t think surgery would bring anything, and so now will be the last time they have with him. I don’t know that the family value it, I haven’t been in their situation.

  10. the inpatient specialties

    I first read this as “the impatient specialties”, which seemed to fit the context rather well.

    When my wife told me about the painful rash she had on her right side and asked me to take a look, I looked, said to myself, “Shingles”, googled it to compare the pictures, called our family-care specialist, and said “I think Gale has shingles, can I bring her in?” The doctor surely thought I had heard the hoofbeats of a zebra, but she said “Okay, come in this afternoon”, and it turned out I was right: it was probably a result of the chemo she’d taken some months before. It was too late for an antiviral, so she endured for five weeks with limited help from pain patches, and then it all went away, fortunately without sequelae so far.

  11. Came across this just now: The Syriac Aristotle between Alexandria and Baghdad, published out of Cardiff and with many mentions of Sergius of Reshaina.


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