Alain Touwaide

Alain Touwaide

Ancient medicine from Heuristic to Hermeneutic I am a trans-disciplinary scholar who has spent decades searching for and exploring, ancient manuscripts and texts with medical content in famous and less-known libraries all over the world. With a classical background, I am particularly interested in the ancient Greek, Latin, and Arabic medical traditions around the Mediterranean.

Discovering ancient manuscripts that have not been opened for years, if not centuries, and deciphering their text(s) transform the traditional image of ancient medicine beyond the usual reduction to such figures as Hippocrates and Galen. This heuristic brings to light a whole world of less-known or even unknown figures who have escaped attention in Western scholarship whereas they have been functional in handling down the ancient medical legacy in a continued tradition. Interpreting ancient medicine and medical writings is a challenge, not the least because of differences in nosology and nosography. According to an opinion widely held (even among scholars), the body was a black box in ancient times, medicine often hurt the patients more than it helped them, and in any case, neither the pathologies affecting the patients nor the plants used for their treatment can be known because of genetic modifications over the centuries.

Covering the whole written production thanks to the heuristic above, and detecting connections between manuscripts and texts introduce sense into the textual body and transform it into a tradition. A relevant medico-pharmaceutical analysis of the content of texts identifies many of them as reports of clinical experience, transforming such texts into documents instead of considering them as just literary pieces as was often the case in scholarship. This traditional and medical approach requires the development of a relevant hermeneutic that goes beyond and transcends historicizing. Crossing the boundaries of academic disciplines, the emergence of ancient DNA technique (aDNA) allows for the identification of several pathogens, as does also the multi-spectral analysis of texts in collaboration with specialists, while a trans-disciplinary investigation makes it possible to identify the plants used medicinally according to present-day taxonomy.

Systematic digitization of texts, previously known or recently discovered, and databasing of massive quantities of data from these texts in the form of binomes linking medical conditions and therapeutic agents, generate a quantity of meta-data resulting from the sum of information itself. The combination of medical conditions and therapeutic agents, particularly if it evidences patterns, allows for the reconstruction of nosography and, going beyond, also nosology. Returning to manuscripts, analysis of the documents from which information is extracted provides geo-chronological data (place and time of production of the documents). If these data are introduced in the databases as above, they make it possible to map the medical conditions and the treatments attested to in the texts in a dynamic reconstruction. Following the itinerary of the texts within one culture through time or their passage to another culture(s) reveals the possible changes in the epidemiology of the former in an evolutionary way and the differentiated epidemiology of the latter according to population genetics. Such mapping also makes it possible to identify and reconstruct in a dynamic way the natural environment of each culture through the natural resources they used for therapeutic purposes. And, among many other results, to also identify botanical species threatened with extinction.

I also work with my wife, long-time research partner, and fellow Ronin Scholar Emanuela Appetiti

Contact Alain at:

External Links:;