Apothecary, detail

Medieval Pharmacy, Apothecary, 2018-2020

Medieval Islamic pharmacology was not only extensive but also the strongest empirically based biological science. Like most medieval medicine, the Islamic viewpoint was an outgrowth of Galen’s Humoral Theory and focused on the need to balance the humors, or bodily fluids. al-Tabari the prominent Persian scholar in 10th c. said that the therapeutic value of each drug needed to be reconciled with the particular disease, and he urged physicians not to simply provide a routine remedy. He recommended glass or ceramic storage vessels for liquid drugs. There are only a few of the herbs that Arabs valued and recognized for their healing properties and as vehicles for making medicines more palatable.

200+ bottles with 12th c. recipes, 2019-2020, H: 6 x W: 60 x D: 42 inches

This work features 200 bottles containing rolled papers of medical recipes from the medieval period that concern women’s health or beauty. The recipes are taken from the book The Trotulaan English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (2001), edited and translated by Dr. Monica H. Green. The Trotula is an ensemble of three independent works, written by three different authors. One of them was written by, or derived from the teachings of, Trota of Salerno in the 12th century, according to Dr. Green. These recipes address various health issues for women, children, and men, using herbs, plants, seeds, animal fat or bone, eggs, and wine, to name a few.

The Forgotten Women of Science, a solo exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles

Examples of the recipes inside the bottles:
From the book, The Trotulaan English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (2001), edited and translated by Dr. Monica H. Green.

“For whitening the Hands [241] for whitening and smoothing the hands, let some ramsons be cooked in water until all the water has been consumed. And stirring well, add tartar and afterward two eggs, and with this you will rub the hands.”

 “On Freckles of the Face [177] For freckles of the face which occur by accident, take root of bistort and reduce it to powder, and cuttlefish bones and frankincense, and from all these things make a powder. And mix with little water and then smear it, rubbing, on the hands in the morning, rubbing them with rose water or water of bran or with breadcrumbs until you have removed [the freckles].”

For removing wrinkles [176] For wrinkled old women, take stinking iris, that is gladden, and extract its juice, and with this juice anoint the face in the evening. And in the morning the skin will be raised and it will erupt, which rupture we treat with the above-mentioned ointment in which root of lily is employed. And first pulling off the skin, which after the rupture has been washed, it will appear very delicate.”

Hand-painted wooden chest, glass bottles, plants extracts, oil and powder, hand-made table, healing cards, shelf and silkscreen on the wall, approximately 9 x 5 feet

The installation is modeled after pharmacies from the middle ages. Glass bottles contain plant extracts, oil, and powders placed in a wooden chest. Healing properties of medicinal plants are written on cards and placed in a shelf on the wall. Exhibition visitors are encouraged to open the bottles and smell the contents and take a card.

Installation view at the Euphrat Museum of Art, De Anza College, Cupertino, CA

Healing cards in the shelf explaining the healing properties of plants


“The professional who is specialized in the collection of all drugs, choosing the very best of each simple or compound, and in the preparation of good remedies from them following the most accurate methods and techniques as recommended by experts in the healing arts.”
Abu al-Rayan al-Biruni, c. 1045 CE

The image on the left: Flanked by figures indicating his tutelage from master physicians (the figure on the right may represent first-century Greek physician Dioscorides), a saydalani—as an early pharmacist was called in Arabic—is shown at work in his dispensary, in which hang a variety of vessels for alchemical production.
The image in the center: The illustration comes from 12th-century Iraq. This depiction of an early European apothecary appeared in Tacuinum Sanitatis, a 14th-century Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s 11th-century Taqwim al-Sihah (Maintenance of Health).
A page from Kitab al-Diryaq (The Book of Antidotes), a 13th-century guide to medicinal plants, also from Iraq, highlights the role of botany in early Islamic pharmacy.

Pharmacy bottles, Medieval period, Courtesy of Morgan Library, New York, USA