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SOARING BEAR Ph.D. Pharmacology
Scientific advisor to the health professions & herbal industry

Ancient Understanding of Chemistry, Natural Science and Herbs

"Out of the ocean of oblivion, man emerges in history in a highly civilized state on the banks of the Nile, some sixty centuries ago." William Osler

The image of primitive people hunting for food all day long and otherwise struggling through life and of witches and alchemists stirring up strange toxic brews is often used by modernists to create contrast to illustrate our rise from the depths of primitavism. Modern science tends to claim that rational evidence-based chemistry and medicine is a relatively recent phenomena of the past couple hundred years (or even just the past few decades). This idea only takes hold in an environment where our educational system has insufficient time to teach more about the wisdom of the ancients.


"...our starting point will be this principle: Nothing can ever be created by divine power out of nothing"

This is nothing less than an expression of the basic law of conservation of matter, written no less than two thousand years ago! And this was not some accidental statement that just happens to endure in its truth. This is just the starting place of a comprehensive text, "On the Nature of the Universe" by Titus Lucretius Carus (~100-55 BC) of ancient Rome (translated by R.E. Latham). A more poetic translation (by WE Leonard) puts the same text this way:

"Nothing from nothing ever yet was born. naught from nothing can become things cannot be born from nothing, nor the same, when born, to nothing be recalled"

Then with this next statement Lucretius goes on to demonstrate a full understanding of conservation of matter:

"The second great principle is this: nature resolves everything into its component atoms and never reduces anything to nothing."

Such understanding went into unfortunate decline during the dark ages. The comparison of modern science rising from the pits of the dark ages overlooks the fact that much of the science was known already, before the decline.

"Perhaps, however, you are becoming mistrustful of my words, because these atoms of mine are not visible to the eye. Consider, therefore, this further evidence of bodies whose existence you must acknowledge though they cannot be seen. First, wind, when its force is roused, whips up waves, founders tall ships and scatters cloud-rack.... Without question therefore, there must be invisible particles of wind which sweep sea and land and the clouds in the sky".

This is nothing less than evidence based science. And he continues with more evidence, which, truly, is use of multiple lines of evidence to establish the roots of basic chemistry:

"Then again, we smell the various scents of things though we never see them approaching our nostrils. Similarly, heat and cold cannot be detected by our eyes and we do not see sounds. Yet all these must be composed of bodies, since they are able to impinge upon our senses. For nothing can touch or be touched except body."

"Again, clothes hung out on a surf beaten shore grow moist. Spread in the sun they grow dry... It follows that the moisture is split up into minute parts which the eye cannot possibly see. Again, in the course of many annual revolutions of the sun a ring is worn thin next to the finger with continual rubbing. Dripping water hollows a stone. A curved plow, iron though it is, dwindles imperceptibly in the furrow. We see the cobble-stones of the highway worn by the feet of many wayfarers... But to perceive what particles drop off at any particular time is a power grudged to us by our ungenerous sense of sight."

Time and modern science has been very generous to these insights. Modern analytical methods now allow us to confirm such molecular and atomic structure of materials.

"Things are not hemmed in by the pressure of solid bodies in a tight mass. This is because there is a vacuity in vacuity I mean intangible and empty space. If it did not exist, things could not move at all. ...Besides, there are clear indications that things that pass for solid are in fact porous. Even in rocks a trickle of water seeps through into caves. Food percolates to every part of an animal's body. Noises pass through wall.... Again, why do some things outweigh others of equal volume? If there is as much matter in a ball of wool as in one of lead, it is natural that it should weigh as heavily."

This discussion about physical properties goes well beyond simple chemistry. Density and volume and gravity are what we now apportion to the cousin science of physics. There is obvious understanding that materials vary in their properties, such as density.

"A property is something that cannot be detached or separated from a thing without destroying it, as weight is a property of rocks, heat of fire, fluidity of water, tangibility of all bodies, intangibility of vacuum." "Material objects are of two kinds, atoms and compounds of atoms."

Compounds are at the foundation of nutrition, medicine and chemistry. He has left medicine to others such as Hipocrates.

"Nature is twofold, consisting of two totally different things, matter and the space in which things happen. Hence each of these must exist by itself without admixture of the other."

All these things were arrived at with just plain philosophical logic, two thousand years ago, without any modern equipment. Simple observation was enough to put together many of the basic principles of science and nature that you will see over and over again as you get into further detail of biochemistry and pharmacology.

"The number of different forms of atoms is finite. If it were not so some of the atoms would have to be of infinite magnitude."

Surely a primitive description of the limited size of the periodic table of elements.

"It must not be supposed that atoms of every sort can be linked in every variety of combination. If that were so, you would see monsters coming into being everywhere."

A basic way of stating that only certain atom connections and certain chemical reactions can happen. Modern chemistry is still exploring the limits of this, but limits, there surely are. This limit allows us to categorize the various sorts of matter into types of chemicals. And because similar chemicals have similar properties, we can deduce attributes of things that have not yet been characterized.

Others have commented on the ancient writings of Lucretius including Harris - commensense - wisdomworld

And the developement of science has been discussed by Haubold in his Microcosmos

Earth Astronomy-Physics

2200 years ago the ancient Greeks understood the earth to be a sphere, estimated in circumferance at 25,000 miles (40,000 km) by Plato and Eratosthenes, 35,000 (55,000 km) by Archimedes, in Ancient Greece.

Ancient Herbalists

Egypt: The Smith Papyrus and Ebers Papyrus date to around 1500 BC, contains prescriptions and formulae for many uses. crystal - aldokkan - UManitoba - lost - touregypt -

China: Pen Tsao (Great Herbal) of around 2735 BC consists of 40 volumes with thousands of prescriptions.

India: Rig-Veda was compiled 4500-1600 BC and Ayurveda 2500-600 BC.

Europe: The word apothecary derives from the Latin word meaning a place where herbs, spices and wine were sold. During the middle ages in England it came to mean the people selling them. London apothecaries derived from the Guild of Pepperers (formed in 1180) and became part of the Grocer's Guild. Spicers joined in 1316. The herb sellers split off on Dec 6 1617 when James I (James VI of Scotland) granted a royal charter, about the time when national pharmacopeias were being published as standards for drugs.

Hippocrates: of Kos 460-377 and the corpus of 72 volumes 430 BC-200 AD written by a number of people includes 350 plants (crystal) amazine Va - wiki -

Theophrastus: In his work, "On the History of Plants", Theophrastus, (372-287 BC) the Greek philosopher and scientist and successor to Aristotle, set the foundations of modern botany. He provides invaluable information concerning the pharmaceutical and aromatic qualities of a 550 plants.

Crateuas: fragments survive of this personal physician to Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus (111-64 BC) (Wellmann).

Dioscorides: (c.79 AD), a Greek born in Turkey and physician of Nero's Roman army, compiled the knowledge of herbal medicine. His knowledge of plants/herbs are astonishing, even to modern standards. In his book "De materia medica", Dioscorides identified more than 500 plant species. The plant descriptions and was widely used as a medical text for centuries (Reeds 1991). Of note is the fact that 40 of these are currently used in pharmacology. The bulk of our knowledge of plants and herbs in ancient Greece comes from the works of Theophrastus and Dioscurides. His introduction shows his intent to collect notes already long known:
"Although many writers of modern times, as well as of antiquity, have composed treatises on the preparation, power and testing of medicines, I will try to show you that I was not moved to this undertaking by any vain or senseless impulse. It was because some of these authors did not perfect their work......Crateuas, the rhizotomist, and Andreas, the physician, appear to have been better versed in this part of the subject than the others, but have passed over many very serviceable roots and have given insufficient descriptions of several herbs....yet the ancients have used great diligence in their work. We may not be wholly in agreement with the modern [Asclepiads] who have in a manner deigned to describe familiar facts well known to all, but they have transmitted the powers of medicine...cursorily..... recording one thing by mistake for another. Moreover, they have offended in the classification of medicines: some couple together those of quite contrary faculties, others follow an alphabetical arrangement, and have separated both the kinds and the operations of things that are closely related, so that thereby they come to be harder to remember. But we, as I may say from our first growth, having an unceasing desire to acquire knowledge of this matter, and having traveled much (for you know that I led a soldier's life) have by your advice gathered together all that I have commented hereupon, and have committed it into five books."

Pliny (23-79 AD) was too encyclopedic and disorganized to lecture from (Reeds 1991 p536). tufts

Galen depended on the descriptions in Dioscorides in his subsequent compilation. Claudius Galinus (Galen, 131-201 AD), Greek physician and medical writer from Pergamum, Asia Minor, recorded 304 medicines that were produced from herbs, wild greens, trees and fruits. Galen on Hippocrates

ancientMeasures - planetherbs

Archimedes mirror energy: mlahanas -

The Dark Ages

Human society degraded into centuries of wars. When the great library at Alexandria was destroyed in Arab reaction to Christian crusades, remnants of that knowledge were conveyed in Arabic by Mamaides, Avicena, etc. Fortunately some hardy intellectuals continued to transcribe the old books (and sometimes add further refinements).

Avicena (980-1037) Canon medicinae book II

Hildegard de Bingen (1098-1179), compiled various subjects of arts and sciences while abbess of the Benedictine convent in Rupertsburg.

Pseudo-Apuleius The Van Arsdall dissertation about the Old English Herbarium demonstrates how that herb book derives from an old Latin text that is sometimes called the "Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius" and how it was modified over time for the change of habitat (from Italy to England). [Van Arsdall] This herbal was a complex of Dioscorides, Pseudo-Apuleius, Pseudo-Musa (De Herba Bettonica, De Taxone) and Sectus Placitus Papyriensis De Med. ex. Animalibus. [Ogilvy] Conditions covered by this manuscript include bites (48), abdominal ails (43), wounds & sores (45), eyes (24), constipation & diarrhea (20), urination (20), urine stones (15), fever (17), headache (20), worms (10), joints (11), spleen (13), swellings (18), gout (15), antidotes to poisons (10), dropsy (8), female (16). [Van Arsdall]

Gilbertus Anglicus (mid 13th century) Compedium of Medicine compiled guides to diagnosis and prognosis and instructions for making many drugs, based on 400 some ingredients.


A study of the texts used by medical schools of the 16th century demonstrates the importance of the old classics by Galen, Dioscorides, Theophrastus and Hippocrates. [Reeds] Herbs were the fundamental source of most medicines of the 16th century. Due to transcription error and insufficiently clear descriptions, there is uncertainty about some of plant that were written about. Nonetheless, ancient does not mean primitive. Sure, there have been many more things to learn. But a comparison to the heights of two thousand years ago may be fairer than to the depths of the dark ages.

Lynn Thorndike "Therapeutic Herbal of Rufinus" U Chi Pr 1945 (Bolognese physician of 14th century)
Herbarius (anon 1484) printed by Guteenberg's associate Peter Schoffer followed by German version, Herbarius zu Teutsch in 1485
Otto Brunfels "Herbarum vivae eicones" 1530, the first with realistic pictures engraved by Hans Weiditz
Leonhard Fuchs "On the History of Plants" 1542, masterpiece of text and pictures
Lilius Gregorius Gyraldus, Historiae Deorum Gentilium, Basileae: Oporinus 1548

Modern chemical history of intermolecular forces 1700-now Cohesion, JS Rowlinson

Pharmacopoeia and National Formularies

London Pharmacopoeia 1618 contains 1028 simple drugs and 300 herbs.

USP 1820-current.
Pharmacopoeae Bernensis Tentamen 1852


Dioscorides "de re Herbaria"
Galen "De Simplicium medicamentorum facultatibus"
Galen "On the Natural Faculties" translated by Arthur John Brock, M.D.
Theophrastus "Historia Plantarum"
Lucretius "On the Nature of the Universe" translated and introduced by R.E. Latham; Penguin Books 1951.
Lucretius "On the Nature of the Universe" translated by William Ellery Leonard available at mit or mirror
Ogilvy, JDA; "Books Known to the English, 597-1066" Medieval Acad. of America, Cambridge, Ma 1967.
Reeds, Karen Meier; "Botany in Medieval and Renaissance Universities", Garland Publ. NY 1991.
Reeds, Karen Meier; Renaissance Humanism and Botany, Annals of Science 33:519-42 1976.
Van Arsdall, Anne; "The Old English Herbarium in a New Context" Ph.D. English, Univ. New Mexico 2001 available from UMI Services,
Wellmann, Max "De Materia Medica Libri Quinque" Weidmann, Berlin 1906-14

Of Further Interest:

science timeline
plants timeline
NSTA periodic chart development
Hippocrates french
Riddle comments on Dioscorides
Galen (Claudius Galinus)
Galen & Hippocrates (Pearcy)
Galen french
Galen on the elements
ancient med Homer to Vesalius (Uva)
ancient med course (Demand IU)
Theophrastus a few pics Uva
Theophrastus text 810-

history of botany (Sengbusch)
Vesalius Anatomy

2003-2008 Soaring Bear; your comments & corrections are welcome