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Dr. Alain Touwaide’s Census of Greek Medical Manuscripts

The National Herald Archive

Dr. Alain Touwaide. Photo: smithsonianmag.com/ Sean McCormick

By Vasilis Papoutsis

LOS ANGELES, CA – Dr. Alain Touwaide is a historian of Greek Medicine and has been teaching a course of Greek Medicine history and its traditions at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) since the academic year 2015-16.

Dr. Touwaide's love affair with the Greek culture started when he was a middle school student in Belgium, where he studied Greek and he developed a fascination for the Greek language. “By the time I finished high school I was able to read the Greek classics fluently with the occasional help of a dictionary,” Dr. Touwaide said.

He went on to study Classics, Oriental studies(Byzantium and the Arabic World), linguistics, and pedagogy at the University of Louvain in Belgium. His main research area is medical plants of the antiquity and in 2005 he received a grant from the National Institutes of Health for a four year project to create the “Medicinal plants of Antiquity: A Computerized Database.” The task would be to analyze, index, digitize, and translate Ancient Greek therapeutic texts.

His book A Census of Greek Medical Manuscripts from Byzantium to the Renaissance is according to the Washington Post “an inventory of all known surviving Byzantine medical manuscripts and it is a primary tool for other researchers.”Touwaide said that “the compilation of all those manuscripts were a monumental task as it took place mostly prior the internet era. It was a 30 year research project during which I researched hundreds of libraries, going over each library's manuscript catalog and searching each one page by page.”

In 2015-16 he received one of ten “Foreign Fellowships” awarded by the Onassis Foundation and for six months was resident of the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens. The project was to survey manuscripts with medical content preserved in libraries across Greece that cover the period from 16th to 19th century. When asked why the Onassis foundation would want to focus on that era Dr. Touwaide said that “ The ancient manuscripts were far better documented as oppose to the manuscripts of the Tourkokratia timewhich were less known and surveyed.”

The manuscripts also known as iatrosofia, produced among the Greek populations during the Ottoman occupation and were considered as lacking scientific value a hypothesis that Dr. Touwaide did not agree with as they carry medical wisdom “that was transferred from grandmothers, to mothers, to daughters and they had to be preserved as botanical usage was becoming extinct.”

Touwaide,along with his anthropologist wife Emanuela Appetiti, are the co-founders of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions based in Washington, DC. The Institute’s focus is to address the need for new medicines and new strategies to discover those medicines by exploring ancient books in libraries across the globe. Deciphering their texts would hopefully lead toacquisition of new knowledge and new discoveries.

The Institute has signed scientific collaborations with the General State Archives, the Institute of Historical Research in Athens, Greece and the Institute of Medieval Studies in Barcelona, Spain. Among its funding partners are the Department of Botany, National Museum of National History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. and the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.The institute is a young organization and it has been the result of the enthusiasm of its founders and their research over the past decades.

However “we are at a point now where the institution needs to have a more permanent structure and become financially sustainable in moving forward” Dr. Touwaide told TNH. “It is very important that the institution is embraced by the Greek diaspora in several different aspects. We need Greek students who know the language, computer scientists to manage the database, storeimages on the Internet and perform optical character recognition. We hope an heir apparent could come through the ranks. Financial investment of course in necessary to sustain the long term mission.”

The Institute's library has temporarily found a home at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens and the Institute's book collection is for onsite usage only and available to researchers on certain days and by appointments . You can attain information by visiting the web site at www.medicaltraditions.org/institute.

The Huntington Library is located in the picturesque enclave of San Marino, CA and features one of the finest research libraries in the world along with an exquisite art collection and botanical gardens. “We hope that The Huntington Library will be the world center for Greek medicine, but at the moment no decision has been made” Touwaide said.Currently, he is a visiting professor at UCLA teaching a history of medicine class and a frequent lecturer around the world. He said that his Institution's intellectual odyssey will continue for years to come.