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Digital Detectives Reveal Medicine’s Roots

Evening Program

Tuesday, February 23, 2016 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.
Code: 1H0113

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Michael Toth uses multispectral imaging to uncover hidden information found on medieval palimpsests

The practice of medicine has long and deep roots that span cultures and civilizations, a reality we easily forget in today's world of advanced research and technology. The writings of one early practitioner, 2nd-century Greek physician Galen, served as a basic source for early medicinal knowledge. His influential text On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs was translated from the original Greek to Syriac and Arabic as it influenced the development of early medical practices across cultures. Although Syriac intermediary translations played a crucial role in the transmission of Galen’s thoughts into Arabic, very few of Syriac translations of these texts have survived.

In 2008, scholars discovered that an 11th-century Syrian hymnal owned by a private collector hid a secret: its music had been inscribed over a 6th-century translation of Galen’s medical text. (The practice of scraping off and overwriting an existing manuscript was a common one in medieval times, producing books termed palimpsests.)

The book was missing pages, which set off an international search for more sections of the manuscript. Once they had been located, spectral imaging revealed what had been lost for centuries—Galen’s words in their Syriac translation.

Michael B. Toth discusses the transmission of early medical thought across cultures and how he and his associates digitally reunited Galen’s work from libraries around the globe, often finding medical texts hidden under religious writings of later eras. From the Vatican to the Sinai Desert to Paris and Harvard, he shares how they tracked down and digitized these rare manuscripts. 

Toth is president of R.B. Toth Associates in Oakton, Virginia, and leads and manages development and operation of new technologies for the digital study, access, and preservation of cultural objects in libraries, museums, and across the Internet.

Other Connections

Find out more about the detective work—both high-tech and human—that revealed the secrets of the hymnal known as the Syriac Galen Palimpsest.

Take a closer look at how multispectral imaging is uncovering hidden information found on medieval palimpsests.


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