Tracing the movement of medicines across space, language and time.

Persian Translation of De Materia Medica by Diascorides, (1595, India)
Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

Materia medica

Medicinal substances, or medical drugs, travelled across regions, communities and time. In each new context, they were differently understood and given different names, making it difficult for historians to track their movements.

Whether as magical substance or natural product, as dispellers of demons, or winds or fevers, as emblems of the power of local knowledge or as rare exotics from far off lands, materia medica were volatile, potent substances, which carried important cultural meanings and transformed local medical practice and knowledge.

Because of their material nature, as physical objects which can be passed from hand to hand, materia medica offer a rich opportunity to compare medical systems. Not only can we compare how different traditions understood the same objects in different ways, they also offer insight into transmission across these traditions. Through identifying when they cross borders into different communities of knowledge, we can better understand how they were received, what influences they exerted, and how they were transformed along their journeys.

Cultural Ecologies

The meaning and usage of different drugs was significantly transformed by the communities who used them (known as communities of practice). These communities were bound by language, institutions, by texts that they read. They were bound (and divided) by social class, by ideology (whether political, religious or intellectual), and by cosmology. These communities existed in different physical environments, such as urban centres and courts, monasteries, rural villages and towns, or mountain retreats. These contexts, and the diversity of forces within them, together make up Cultural Ecologies. In these environments some materia medica thrive, and others do not survive, whether or not they are native, or introduced to the region.

Tools for Digital Research

The goal of this project is to develop new digital tools to compare and contrast the use of materia medica in different communities. It addresses two primary issues:

Primary Sources

The project provides high quality, citable transcriptions of identified manuscripts from known libraries. In addition to providing them as transcribed, searchable text in the primary source language, it also provides them in a form that allows for digital analysis.

This takes the form of highly structured, or segmented, documents with richly encoded information about the provenance of the text, or meta-data. Researchers can use this format to perform massive term searches, for example for the location of thousands of drug terms, and then perform fine analysis of the source texts’ date, genre, sectarian affiliation, regional provenance and others.

These results can be analysed and visualised using Social Networking Analysis, to perform macro-scale summaries of term distributions. At the same time, scholars can also refer back to individual passages, and perform close reading of the source texts. In this way, scholars can navigate the micro and macro scales of large corpora of texts to discover where knowledge lies, and how it is situated in its various locations.

To do this, we use DocuSky, an innovative database tool developed for Sinological research, and now being adapted for more languages.

DAOBUDMED6D compares Chinese sources across Buddhist, Daoist and medical genres.

Collected Annotations on the Materia Medica shows how a densely marked-up text can provide multiple avenues for research

Polyglot Medicines expands the Chinese corpus to late imperial medicine, and compares this with Malay manuscripts, Abui field data and mixed-language Peranakan family recipes.

Drug Identification: Historical Plant Synonymy

The key problem to working in this way across languages is how to associate native drug terms with material objects. Plant botany is an ever-changing target, and many ethnonyms cover different ranges of species than Linnaean terms. Furthermore, the evidence for historical attributions of scientific species to historical ethnonym is fraught with complexity as identities of plants changed over time, and with the long-used practice of substitution for local varieties.

This project provides an authority database, which allows researchers to trace the source of attribution. Drawing largely on Kew Garden’s Medical Plant Names Services, it augments that list in the first instance with over 30,000 alternate names for Chinese drugs, transcribed in pinyin and simplified characters. These plant names are also linked to other plant name services, such as IPNI,, as well as databases with the latest phytochemical research on plant bioactivity.

Many contemporary data sources are normative, that is, they single out only one botanical species to correspond to one single ethnonym. The Historical Plant Synonymy is descriptive, it describes multiple attributions to a given ethnonym, and provides the sources for those attributions. The Synonymy will accommodate three kinds of sources: modern dictionaries, secondary scholarship, and polyglot primary sources. All three types will be referenced in the database, and we will allow for further expansion in the future.

This project also envisions the comparison of ethnobotanical data from field research, and we anticipate publication of medicinal plant name data from linguists and anthropologists in addition to historical sources.