Hidden medical text read for the first time in a thousand years

With X-ray imaging at SLAC’s synchrotron, scientists uncovered a 6th century translation of a book by the Greek-Roman doctor Galen.

An influential physician and a philosopher of early Western medicine, Galen of Pergamon was the doctor of emperors and gladiators. One of his many works, “On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs,” was an important pharmaceutical text that would help educate fellow Greek-Roman doctors.

The text was translated during the 6th century into Syriac, a language that served as a bridge between Greek and Arabic and helped spread Galen’s ideas into the ancient Islamic world. But despite the physician’s fame, the most complete surviving version of the translated manuscript was erased and written over with hymns in the 11th century – a common practice at the time. These written-over documents are known as palimpsests.

An international team of researchers is getting a clear look at the hidden text of the Syriac Galen Palimpsest with an X-ray study at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

>Read more on the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource website

Image: Conservators at Stanford University Libraries removed the pages from the leather-bound cover of the book of hymns, and mounted each leaf in an individually fitted, archival mat. The individual mats were placed in an aluminum frame to secure the pages while examining the underlying text with X-rays at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource.
Farrin Abbott / SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory