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Materia medica is a Latin medical term for the body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of any substance used for healing (i.e., medicines). In Latin, the term literally means "medical material/substance". The term was used from the period of the Roman Empire until the twentieth century, but has now been generally replaced in medical education contexts by the term pharmacology.



Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Byzantium, 15th century.
Dioscorides De Materia Medica in Arabic, Spain, 12th-13th century.

The term 'materia medica' derived from the title of a work by the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides in the 1st century AD, entitled Περί ύλης ιατρικής in Greek or De materia medica libri quinque in Latin, concerning medical matter in five volumes. This famous commentary covered about 500 plants along with a number of therapeutically useful animal and mineral products. It is a precursor to all modern pharmacopeias, and is considered one of the most influential herbal books in history. It remained in use until about CE 1600.[1]

The earliest Chinese manual of materia medica, the Shennong Bencao Jing (Shennong Emperor's Classic of Materia Medica), was compiled in the first century AD during the Han dynasty, but it was attributed to the mythical Shennong. It lists some 365 medicines of which 252 of them are herbs. Earlier literature included lists of prescriptions for specific ailments, exemplified by a manuscript Recipes for Fifty-Two Ailments, found in the Mawangdui tomb, which was sealed in 168 BC. Succeeding generations augmented the Shennong Bencao Jing, as in the Yaoxing Lun (Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs), a 7th century Tang Dynasty treatise on herbal medicine.

Later in the medieval Islamic world, Muslim botanists and Muslim physicians significantly expanded on the earlier knowledge of materia medica. For example, al-Dinawari described more than 637 plant drugs in the 9th century,[2] Ibn al-'Awwam described 585 microbiological cultures (55 of which concern fruit trees) in the 12th century,[3] and Ibn al-Baitar described more than 1,400 different plants, foods and drugs, over 300 of which were his own original discoveries, in the 13th century.[4] The experimental scientific method was introduced into the field of materia medica in the 13th century by the Andalusian-Arab botanist Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati, the teacher of Ibn al-Baitar. Al-Nabati introduced empirical techniques in the testing, description and identification of numerous materia medica, and he separated unverified reports from those supported by actual tests and observations. This allowed the study of materia medica to evolve into the science of pharmacology.[5]

Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine (1025) is considered the first pharmacopoeia,[6][7] and lists 800 tested drugs, plants and minerals.[8] This was followed by other pharmacopoeia books written by Abu-Rayhan Biruni in the 11th century,[7] Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) in the 12th century (and printed in 1491),[9] and Ibn Baytar in the 14th century.[10] The origins of clinical pharmacology also date back to the Middle Ages in Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine, Peter of Spain's Commentary on Isaac, and John of St Amand's Commentary on the Antedotary of Nicholas.[11] In particular, the Canon introduced clinical trials,[12] randomized controlled trials,[13][14] and efficacy tests.[15][16]

During the Middle Ages and the modern era, the body of knowledge termed materia medica was transformed by the methods and knowledge of medicinal chemistry into the modern scientific discipline of pharmacology.

See also


  1. ^ Timeline: Pedanius Dioscorides, c. 40–90 CE
  2. ^ Fahd, Toufic, "Botany and agriculture", pp. 815 , in (Morelon & Rashed 1996, pp. 813–52)
  3. ^ Fahd, Toufic, "Botany and agriculture", pp. 848–9 , in (Morelon & Rashed 1996, pp. 813–52)
  4. ^ Diane Boulanger (2002), "The Islamic Contribution to Science, Mathematics and Technology", OISE Papers, in STSE Education, Vol. 3.
  5. ^ Huff, Toby (2003), The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West, Cambridge University Press, p. 218, ISBN 0521529948, OCLC 50730734 
  6. ^ Philip K. Hitti (cf. Dr. Kasem Ajram (1992), Miracle of Islamic Science, Appendix B, Knowledge House Publishers. ISBN 0911119434).
  7. ^ a b Dr. Z. Idrisi, PhD (2005). The Muslim Agricultural Revolution and its influence on Europe. The Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization, UK.
  8. ^ Jacquart, Danielle, "Islamic Pharmacology in the Middle Ages: Theories and Substances", European Review 16 (2): 219–227 [223] 
  9. ^ M. Krek (1979). "The Enigma of the First Arabic Book Printed from Movable Type", Journal of Near Eastern Studies 38 (3), p. 203-212.
  10. ^ Dr. Kasem Ajram (1992), Miracle of Islamic Science, Appendix B, Knowledge House Publishers. ISBN 0911119434.
  11. ^ D. Craig Brater and Walter J. Daly (2000), "Clinical pharmacology in the Middle Ages: Principles that presage the 21st century", Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics 67 (5), p. 447-450 [448-449].
  12. ^ David W. Tschanz, MSPH, PhD (August 2003). "Arab Roots of European Medicine", Heart Views 4 (2).
  13. ^ Jonathan D. Eldredge (2003), "The Randomised Controlled Trial design: unrecognized opportunities for health sciences librarianship", Health Information and Libraries Journal 20, p. 34–44 [36].
  14. ^ Bernard S. Bloom, Aurelia Retbi, Sandrine Dahan, Egon Jonsson (2000), "Evaluation Of Randomized Controlled Trials On Complementary And Alternative Medicine", International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care 16 (1), p. 13–21 [19].
  15. ^ D. Craig Brater and Walter J. Daly (2000), "Clinical pharmacology in the Middle Ages: Principles that presage the 21st century", Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics 67 (5), p. 447-450 [449].
  16. ^ Walter J. Daly and D. Craig Brater (2000), "Medieval contributions to the search for truth in clinical medicine", Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43 (4), p. 530–540 [536], Johns Hopkins University Press.


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