Understanding ancient practices
By Sol Inés Peca
One hundred years ago, Sir William Osler became interested in acquiring Arabic medical manuscripts for his library as a Regius Professor of Medicine in Oxford. Today, one particular manuscript from his collection, now housed at McGill University’s medical library bearing his name, will be studied over the next few years by a group of international, interdisciplinary scholars.
For nearly twenty years, Alain Touwaide has been studying a rare Arabic manuscript through a black and white microfilm reproduction. Kept in the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University, the manuscript became part of Sir William Osler’s collection of books he donated in 1929 to McGill, in gratitude to the Faculty for its support of him as a student and young professor. The existence of the ancient document had come to the attention of Touwaide, Scientific Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions housed in the Botany Department of the Smithsonian Institute, and his interest was piqued. The microfilm copy came to him in the mail and became one more part of his extensive database on medical botany.
“The research is about understanding how these texts were used by practitioners in their daily practice of medicine,” said Touwaide, who recently had the opportunity to visit McGill and see the manuscript in its full-colour splendour for the first time.
The document, from one of the greatest botanist/pharmacologists of the Islamic period, twelfth-century Andalusian physician and scholar Abu Ja`far al-Ghafiqi, was put on display at the Osler Library, where present-day international scholars and researchers who will undertake ‘The Ghafiqi Project’, had gathered.
“Its riches remain hermetic and sealed, until your expertise brings it out,” said Professor of Medicine at McGill, Dr. Abraham Fuks, as he addressed the group and officially launched the study of the manuscript with a series of workshops and conferences.
Thanks to an anonymous gift in memory of Montreal rare book dealer and collector John Mappin, McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies and The Osler Library have teamed up to coordinate this project, which will span the next few years. “I was astounded and astonished to learn of this manuscript,” said Jamil Ragep, Director of the Institute. “The goal is to digitize and catalogue, and bring the manuscript to light.”
There is no doubt that this project will be a multidisciplinary exercise. It aims to spur subsequent research, culminating in the eventual publication of a three-volume work that will include a facsimile of the manuscript, a translation and a scholarly commentary. In addition to the social, historical and medicinal knowledge it will yield, the benefits could be much more far-reaching. Shigehisa Kuriyama, History of Medicine Professor at Harvard University noted how this project could impact the way information is shared and understood. “This will serve as a model for how to enhance the usefulness of archival material, to make it accessible worldwide.”
Kuriyama, along with Touwaide, is among the nine scholars from the fields of philology, art history, pharmacology, ethno-pharmacology, literature and history of medicine who participated in the workshops and who shed new light and brought forth new questions on this ancient manuscript.
“Some of the basic issues can be worked on immediately, like the components of the pigments in the paint for example,” noted Pamela Miller, History of Medicine Librarian at the Osler Library. The document contains 367 colour illustrations with calligraphy text in Arabic. According to Miller, the more comprehensive studies of the 475 entries are what will take more time, including an in-depth comparison with the Oxford Arabic Dioscorides that Osler thought was the first volume of this work.
After having gotten to know the manuscript for so long from afar, this is a welcome challenge for Touwaide. “Being able to trace the layers of creation and identify possible components and image associations will be a very stimulating experience.”
The group of scholars include:
Leigh Chipman - Middle Eastern Studies, Hebrew University
Abraham Fuks - Professor of Medicine, McGill University
Adam Gacek – Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University
Mais Kataya – Pharmacist and Historian, University of Aleppo, Syria
Jaclynn Kerner - Assistant Professor in Art History, State University of New York
Oliver Khal - Private Researcher, Associated with Manchester University
Hisa Kuriuyama – History of Medicine Professor, Harvard University
Efraim Lev – Historian of Medicine and Ethno-Pharmacologist, University of Haifa
Jamil Ragep – Director of Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University
Alain Touwaide – Scientific Director of the Institute for the preservation of Medical Traditions, Smithsonian Institute
Raphaela Veit – Digital Averroes Research Environment, University of Cologne
Faith Wallis – History of Medicine, McGill University