The historical roles of mineral materials in folk medicine and the development of the materia medica

Duffin, Christopher John (2018) The historical roles of mineral materials in folk medicine and the development of the materia medica. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


Mineral materials include rocks, minerals, fossils, earths, mineraloids, biogenic skeletal remains and synthetic stones. Each of these classes of material has enjoyed much popularity as supposedly therapeutic medicinal ingredients in the history of pharmacy; many have an unbroken record of use since ancient and classical times. The historical materia medica incorporates minerals that have been made use of in both medical folklore and academic analysis. This thesis presents a body of work which develops examples from each class of mineral material, tries to establish their identities, and explores the evolution of their therapeutic use against the backdrop of changing philosophies in the history of medicine. The most rudimentary use of mineral materials was in a magico-medicinal way as amulets wom for protection against harmful influences which might be expressed in the body as loss of health, and as prophylactics against specific diseases and poisons. Amulets were often worn as pendants, necklaces and rings, or appended to the clothing in some way. The humoral system of Greek medicine saw the health of the body as being a state of balance between the four humours. Humoral imbalance was corrected by, amongst other interventions, the application of medicinal simples or 'Galenicals', which were largely unmodified (other than by trituration) herbal, zoological and mineralogical materials. The choice of simple was determined by the Aristotelian qualities ascribed to them, and their perceived efficacy according to the Doctrine of Signatures. This approach to prescribing practice held sway from classical times until the work of Paracelsus at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution which commended the use of only the active ingredients of a particular simple, separated from the remainder by alchemical means. These iatrochemical preparations permitted dosage standardisation and encouraged a more empirical approach to prescribing practice. The mineral materials most closely examined in this thesis in the context of the evolving materia medica are pumice, gemstones, holed flints, amber, unicom horn, Jews' stones (fossil echinoid spines), Porcupine bezoars, otoliths and synthetic stones. The analyses presented here rely on the study of manuscript, archival, printed and material sources.

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