Author Q&A Session with Alain Touwaide

Routledge is pleased to share with you our author Q&A session with Alain Touwaide, author of the recently published title A Census of Greek Medical Manuscripts: From Byzantium to the Renaissance. Alain is currently researching at the Botany Center of The Huntington in San Marino, California as well as teaching ancient medical tradition at UCLA. Alain is also the series editor for Medicine in the Medieval Mediterranean.

Congratulations on the publication of your Census of Greek Medical Manuscripts. What inspired you to write it?

When I was writing my PhD thesis in the late 1970s, I spent long periods in research libraries all over the world, from the Vatican library to Mount Athos for example, in order to trace and personally analyze all the copies of the Greek medical text of which I was preparing a scholarly edition. I noticed that many of the codices that transmitted Greek medicine to the 20th century were still insufficiently catalogued. I also discovered both manuscripts that had remained unnoticed thus far, and texts that had remained unknown or had been overlooked in previous literature. I decided to compensate for these lacunas and to compile a list of the manuscripts containing Greek medical texts preserved in libraries worldwide. I did not know I was embarking on a 40-year journey that would lead me to known and less-known libraries across the globe, and would require to spend innumerable hours scrutinizing old catalogues, browse entire collections (sometimes dusty) on the shelves, frequent international auction houses and specialized antiquarian book dealers, and get acquainted with secretive private collectors. It has been an extraordinary adventure of constant discoveries, not only in splendid historical libraries with incredible treasures, but also, if not above all, in the written record of Mediterranean medicine, with the copyists of the manuscripts I was bringing back to light, the physicians who compiled the texts I was reading, and the patients whom these physicians were assisting. The result is the Census, which lists for the first time all the manuscripts, previously known or newly identified and discovered, currently preserved in libraries and collections worldwide, which, I hope, will be useful to any scholar interested in Greek medical manuscripts and texts.

Is there one piece of research included in the book which really surprised you or challenged your previous understanding of the topic?

Traveling the world searching for manuscripts is always an adventure that brings multiple surprises. I will mention here only two such examples: a manuscript with two different shelfmark numbers in the 19th-century catalogue of the collection where it was last referenced. These two numbers puzzled all scholars who could not find this item and concluded that it was lost. Step by step, I was able to trace it back on the antiquarian book market, at auction houses and dealers, and I located it in a library where it has been studied since, with nobody realizing however that it was the double-numbered manuscript supposedly lost. Another case is no less significant. A volume containing three different manuscripts bound together at some point in time for easy shelving, was unbound in the late 20th century and sold on the antiquarian market as three different items. One of them ended up in a private collection and I was fortunate enough to have the possibility to examine it; another was bought by an American university and is now digitized and accessible on the Internet; and the third was acquired by a private museum, where it was properly catalogued. Last year, visiting an international antiquarian book fair in Pasadena, I saw a Greek manuscript—which is something relatively rare in this type of exhibition—and I started to read its text. I quickly recognized that it was a medical manuscript and I had the feeling that it was the third item of the unbound manuscript. I looked more closely at it to discover that it exactly corresponded to the manuscript I was thinking of. Talking with the curator of manuscripts of the exhibitor, I discovered that my intuition was correct. I could mention dozens of such cases, where visual memory, tenacity, intuition and a bit of luck enabled me to find “lost manuscripts”. From one such discovery to another, multiple new manuscripts have been brought to light. They have increased the total number of known Greek medical manuscripts by 60%, something that largely exceeded my most conservative expectations and deeply transformed (actually expanded) the field and, by way of consequence, the very nature of my initial research programme.

Do you have plans for future books? What’s next in the pipeline for you?

Both the many manuscripts newly identified as medical and the multiple previously unknown or overlooked texts that they contain call for a catalogue. I am already working on a full analysis of all the manuscripts listed in the Census, which will build on the material I have collected over the past decades and my personal examination of many of the items in the Census. The catalogue will provide the full description of the manuscripts themselves and the identification of all their texts. It will go beyond traditional catalography of manuscripts and texts. Ancient medical recipes and manuals are more scrutinized than ever to find the new medicines that populations in the world urgently need.Data about the therapeutic properties and uses of plants recorded through the centuries—which is exactly what the texts in the manuscripts listed in Census contain—are critical. The 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine awarded to Youyou Tu, consecrating her search for a new anti-malarial medicine on the basis of the written tradition of ancient Chinese medicine, is a magisterial confirmation of the crucial value of the information contained in ancient texts. The more information we can collect, the better. It is not enough to locate the formula of a medicine in an old manuscript, indeed. The persistent use of a formula through the centuries and, possibly also, across cultures, is a sign that such formula probably has some efficacy and might be a good candidate for renewed research. Whereas the Census lists all the Greek manuscripts that contain the results of the medical experience of Greek medicine in a handy format and on the basis of a personal verification, the catalogue already in the making will go beyond by bringing to light all the texts with crucial information for future medical research.

What sparked your particular interest in Greek medical manuscripts?

In the early 1970s I enrolled in Classics at the University of Louvain (Belgium). One of the professors in the department was teaching history of science. I was intrigued and I took his classes on the history of Greek astronomy. I was not (and still am not) very much of a mathematician and I definitely preferred the natural and life sciences. This is why I chose to study an ancient Greek text on venoms and poisons for my BA thesis. Further on, when I engaged into a PhD programme, I decided to prepare the critical edition of such a text under the supervision of this same professor, who was a Scientific Collaborator at the Vatican Library and spent several months at the Library every year to study Greek astronomical manuscripts. He suggested I should accompany him to learn the “manuscript business” in the field. What better place than the Vatican Library and its exceptional collection with pieces dating as far back in the time as the 10th century to learn about Greek medical manuscripts? There I was contaminated: I got the manuscript virus, which has never abandoned me since.

How do you think the field of Greek medical manuscript studies is evolving today? What are some ongoing controversies?

Greek medical manuscripts have not been a field of research in se and per se until very recently, even though there were some attemps in the late 19th and early 20th century and multiple studies during the 20th century, which, however, were scattered across such disciplines as philology, manuscripts studies, paleography, edition and history of medical texts, history of collectors, collections and libraries, to mention some. When I began researching these manuscripts with the intuition that they form a field in its own right, I was facing multiple obstacles, from the lack of the necessary instruments for a systematic investigation to the absence of academic structure to host this kind of research. Decades of persistent efforts, most of the time out of mainstream reseach, have lead to a recognition of the field best represented by the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions that I have co-founded ten years ago as a research and education center specialized in medical manuscript studies. The emerging field of specialized study of Greek medical manuscripts crossed path with another growing field, medical traditions. The Institute is located at the intersection of these two lines of research interest in medical traditions and attracts students and scholars from all over the world who wish respectively to receive a special education on this topic or to pursue independent research taking advantage of the library collection in the field that I have assembled. Significantly enough, the field attracts young students from across the disciplines and even scholars from different cultural horizons, as specialists of the medical literature of such other worlds as China, Tibet, and India come to the Institute to apply to the traditions they know the concepts and methods developed on the Greek medical tradition. It is too soon to talk about major controversies, even though multiple points of historical reconstruction and interpretation based on the analysis of medical manuscripts might be discussed and become controversial. The most important point is that the field is now recognized and is burgeoning, attracting students and scholars from all over the world and interested in different medical traditions. I do hope that this trend will continue and will lead to comparative study, both within the same cultural area (by comparing medical and astronomical manuscripts, for example) and between different cultural areas (by comparing the mechanisms of transmission of texts in the Greek medical tradition, for example, and in the Ayurveda).

Tell us an unusual fact about yourself and your teaching.

As a classicist, I have spent my entire career in medical schools, colleges of pharmacy, faculties of sciences, departments of history of science, medicine and pharmacy, research centers specialized in Byzantine history or history of medicine, historical and more recent libraries of medicine including at the US National Institute of Health, and museums of natural history and departments of botany all over the world. All this to be able to work in a transdisciplinary way. Right now, I am at the Botany Center of The Huntington in San Marino, California, which is an extraordinary place made of twelve different gardens, on top of a fine library of History of Science and an art gallery. As for teaching, my current class at UCLA is about the ancient medical tradition, and my students come from disciplines as different as business, classical civilization, neurosciences, molecular, cell and development biology, physiopsychology, mathematics, anthropology, public health, English, or the arts. And my reader is an electrical engineer. Isn’t it unusual all this?

Anything else you would like to add?

I wish to thank Routledge for the publication of the book in the series Medicine in the Medieval Mediterranean and for this pleasant conversation. I hope that the Census will inspire students to engage into this field, and scholars to expand it by exploring other traditions, however complex and demanding the study of medical tradition might be.

Other books by Alain

Medicine in the Medieval Mediterranean Series

Alain Touwaide

A Census of Greek Medical Manuscripts