Deciphering doctor's writing is tough: she's from the 6th century

August 04, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Here's a sure-fire recipe for love, straight from one of the best female doctors of the 6th century:

"Take the womb of the hare, and fry it in a rusted bronze frying pan.

"Throw in 3 pounds of rose oil, then grind smooth with good-smelling myrrh.

"Add 4 drams of fat, 1 dram crocodile dung, 2 drams juice of garlic germander and of bloody flux, and 4 drams of honey.

"Some also blend in a small amount of sparrow fat."

A dollop of this aphrodisiac, says Dr. Holt Parker, professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati, in Ohio, "was intended to be smeared on the woman, presumably when she wasn't looking. How you sneak up on a woman with crocodile dung or rabbit womb, I don't know."

The recipe is one of many contained in an ancient medical handbook written in Greek for doctors and lay people by a 6th century female gynecologist known as Metrodora.

Dr. Parker has spent much of the last two years reading, researching and translating a 40-page collection of Metrodora's writing, which he tracked down in a Renaissance-era library in Florence, Italy, and hopes to publish soon.

He believes it to be the oldest surviving medical manuscript authored by a female physician, revealing much about the history of both women and medicine.

Noted in library catalogs since 1770, Metrodora's work had never before been accurately translated, Dr. Parker said.

It includes a substantial book on gynecology, a shorter collection of antidotes, a book on pharmacology, and part of an alphabetically organized handbook of remedies.

For Dr. Parker, the laborious translation was an "absolutely fascinating" experience.

"There is a real sense of connection, of looking at the things that were most important to people in their daily lives -- the cures for bad rashes and coughs, and the things everybody deals with," Dr. Parker said. At the same time, the text conveys a vivid sense of the exotic.

In addition to aphrodisiacs, Metrodora lists cures and potions for hemorrhoids, uterine cancer, infections, breast disease and other illnesses. There are ways to promote pregnancy, ease childbirth, determine the sex of unborn children or restore the appearance of virginity.

Metrodora also offers cosmetics, aids to conception and contraception, ways to help women produce or dry up their milk, and to keep their breasts small and beautiful. There is no advice on how to enlarge breasts.

Some of the cures and potions are clearly useless or superstitious by modern medical standards, Dr. Parker said. But some might actually have worked, including a cough remedy containing opium, and a highly astringent contraceptive that may have been an effective spermicide.

"There has been a general tendency away from viewing ancient medical texts as compendiums of complete nonsense, and a recognition that a number of . . . plants and materials . . . contain genuinely therapeutic actions," Dr. Parker said. "They were actually trying to cure people using things that seemed to them to work."

Although the texts reveal nothing of Metrodora directly, Dr. Parker's research suggests she lived and

worked -- perhaps in Alexandria -- after the classical times of Greece and Rome, in the early years of the Byzantine Empire.

It was an era that continued to prosper from the expansion of art and learning begun centuries earlier by the Greeks and Romans. Women were active as artists and scholars, Dr. Parker said. Other medical texts of the time quote female physicians as authorities.

The text, entitled "From the Works of Metrodora," is hand-written in faded black ink on poorly preserved pages made of thin animal skin called vellum. The pages are wedged in a large "codex," or book of collected medical texts by a variety of authors, some of them anonymous. The book is held in the Laurenziana Library in Florence.

Dr. Parker believes the manuscript is a 12th-century copy, hand-written by an "incredibly ignorant scribe" prone to misspelling and other errors. The scribe, in turn, appears to have been working from an earlier copy, that was itself damaged.

Dr. Parker happened on the text while preparing a class lecture on the role of women in antiquity. Unable to find a reliable translation, he decided to do it himself. Supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, he flew to Florence and worked with the vellum copy, as well as photographic prints.

"To be in a library designed by Michelangelo, sitting in front of a 12th-century manuscript. . . . It was quite thrilling," he said. When ultraviolet light and other aids failed to reveal key words, "the best thing was bright Florentine sunshine . . . and a magnifying glass."

It was all very different from the high-energy particle physics he had intended to make his career, or the cooking and crossword puzzles that occupy his free time.

Add to his hobbies now the lure of Metrodora's concoctions.

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