Scribonius Longus, The Roman Physician Who Used Electricity as a Treatment

Mar 30, 2022 0 comments

Scribonius Longus (Latin Scribonius Largus ) was a 1st century AD Roman physician who served at the court of Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) and reportedly accompanied the Roman army in the conquest of Britain. He is famous for having written a pharmacopoeia (list of recipes) that was used in Europe until the 17th century, and also for being the first known to have used electricity as a remedy. However, his life is a mystery.

A Roman physician in a painting by John William Waterhouse (1877).

All we know about Scribonius Longus is through his own writings. Major ancient sources like Suetonius or Pliny the Elder do not even mention him. Something especially strange in the latter, since they were contemporaries (Scribonius was 20 years older than Pliny) and both explain the usefulness of the index in books in almost identical terms: to make it easier to find what you are looking for. Many historians have wondered how it was possible that Pliny did not know Scribonius Longus.

One reason may be that Scribonius's text, entitled De compositione medicinalum liber, had not been widely circulated in the Latin world. However, he is mentioned by the Greek physician Galen, who was active during the second half of the second century AD in Pergamon and then in Rome from 162 AD, where he would come into contact with his work, and through whom he would pass into medieval era compilations.

Although he belonged to the gens Scribonia, it is believed that he was probably a freedman or a son of a freedman who therefore bears the name of his former master, but who would have achieved the status of citizen. He could have been born in Sicily and his teachers, as he himself states, were: Apuleius Celsus (one of the first doctors who wrote in Latin instead of Greek), from whom he transmitted two prescriptions, one for cough and the other for rabies; and Vecio Valente, also a student of Celsus and who became the personal doctor of Messalina, the third wife of Emperor Claudius.

Roman soldier removing an arrow from a fellow soldier's leg with a pair of pinchers.

Some historians think that in reality he must have been Greek and wrote in this language, later translating into Latin. Hence, his prose is little elaborated and very colloquial. In any case, Scribonius was recommended to Emperor Claudius by Gaius Julius Callistus, one of the most influential freedmen in the court. Proof of his good relations among the imperial family is that he speaks in his texts of the medicines and remedies used by some of its present and past members, such as Augustus, Tiberius, Octavia, and Messalina.

When Claudius decided to invade Britain in 43 A.D., Scribonius participated in the campaign, although it is not known whether he did so as an army physician or as a private physician to one of the expedition commanders.

Four years later, in 47 AD, Scribonius published the only one of his works that has come down to us, known as the Compositions, in which he compiled a collection of pharmaceutical formulas and traditional remedies that included 271 prescriptions, the vast majority of which were his own invention. In the text, which Escribonius dedicates to Callisto, he also acknowledges his debt to his teachers, friends and the writings of important earlier physicians.

Scribonius Largus’s Compositiones

In the preface Scribonius asserts himself as heir to Hippocratic deontology, establishing a set of ethical standards in pharmaceutical prescription that had a great influence on medical humanism in later centuries. In fact, the work of Scribonius is the oldest documentary reference to the Hippocratic oath. According to him, medical prescription should be governed by two principles or virtues: humanitas and mercy, since medicine should be the art of healing and not of harming (scientia sanandi). 

Hardly anyone conducts a thorough assessment of a doctor's credentials before submitting oneself and one's family to their care. In contrast, no one would commission a painter to make their portrait without first evaluating his ability by studying examples of his work. Everyone owns a set of precision weights and measurements to ensure that mistakes don't occur in aspects of life that are actually quite trivial. This is so because people give more value to things than to themselves. Therefore, doctors do not feel the need to work hard in the study of medicine. There are even some who are not only ignorant of the writings of past physicians, whose works form the foundation of the medical profession,

Scribonius Longus, Compositions , preface

The 271 recipes are divided into three main sections. The first consists of 162 recipes and is organized by disease, from head to toe. The second is a list of 37 antidotes for poisons, bites and stings, and the third deals with plasters, dressings and salves used by surgeons.

Although many of these prescriptions came from the works of earlier physicians, he also used to buy prescriptions of dubious origin from anyone who could prove that they worked. He condemned superstitious remedies that were outside the medical profession and used herbal substances that had therapeutic properties (and could be found in modern herbalist shops). Many of them continued to be used until at least 1655.

But perhaps the most famous prescription is his treatment of gout and headaches with electricity, the first documented use in history. Evidently, at that time it was animal electricity. Specifically, the application of a Mediterranean torpedo fish or marbled ray (Torpedo marmorata) or an Atlantic torpedo (Torpedo nobiliana) on the patient's forehead, between the eyebrows. In this way the fish discharged its electricity until the patient's senses became numb. Hence the resulting state is called torpor. In the case of gout, the fish was placed under the feet. 

You have to tie the stripe on the part of the body where there is pain (that is, on the head), and leave it there until the pain stops and that area is numb

Long Scribonium, Compositions 11

He also recommends having several stripes on hand, as sometimes two or three are not enough for the treatment to work.

Torpedo marmorata. Photo: Philippe Guillaume/Wikimedia

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.


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