Peter Forsskål

Author: Philippe Provençal, Natural History Museum, Aarhus

One of Peter Forsskål’s important contributions during the Arabian Travel 1761-1767 was his investigations at Greek pharmacists in Cairo, published in 1775 in Descriptiones Animalium in the last chapter under the title: Materia Medica ex Officina Pharmaceutica Kahiræ Descripta. (Forskål 1775a - usually spelt Forsskål, his name is nevertheless spelt Forskål in both Descriptiones Animalium and in his Flora Ægyptiaco-Arabica). Altogether he collected 565 drugs. He indicates the components of each drug in Latin, the provenience and in most cases the Arabic names too, written in both Latin and Arabic letters, but sometimes only with one kind of letters. Often, but really not always, he also gives the use of the medicament in question. The articles under each entry of a medicament are short - usually not longer than one line. The drugs are arranged according to the following order: 1. Animalia. 2. Mineralia. 3. Herbæ . 4. Folia et Flores. 5. Ligna. 6. Fructus. 7. Radices. 8. Semina. 9. Gummata, Resinæ, Succi with Balsama as a subdivision. 10. Olea. 11. Spiritus. 12. Aquæ. 13. Syrupi. 14. Conservæ, Electuria, Extracta. 15. Unguenta. 16. Pulveres. 17. Pilulæ. 18. Varia, where the drugs under Balsama, Olea and Spiritus are only indicated in Latin script and with no indication of the provenience. Nevertheless the name of spiritus No. 7 Tinct. Sal. Tart. is also given with Arabic letters. Conservæ, Electuria, Extracta, Unguenta, Pulveres and Pilulæ are also given without any indication of the provenience, but the great majority have their names given in Arabic letters, too. On the other hand, it was not necessary to indicate the provenience, as most of these products in all certainty were fabricated locally.

Regarding amber Forsskål mentions it as No. 24 under Mineralia: Succinum prepar. Kehrebî mdîba. The two last words are Cairo dialect for the Classical Arabic kahrabí mudhîbah, which means dissolved amber. The preparation is thus composed of pulverised amber dissolved or suspended in water. This is reminiscent of the methods of medical preparations of amber found in Ibn al-Baytâr.

Both in Descriptiones Animalium (Forskål 1775a) and in Flora Ægyptiaco-Arabica (Forskål 1775b) Forsskål describes the medical use of the naturalia if there are any. When it comes to Yemen his notes are especially valuable as they, regarding the animals and plants, are the first where the identity of the drugs in question are put together with Linnean classifications. This renders possible both a comparison with modern registers of traditional medicaments and an easier eventual identification of the drugs in question in Classical Arabic texts, especially as Forsskål in the vast majority of cases provided his descriptions of animals, plants and minerals with the Arabic names of the treated objects; mostly in Latin transcriptions, which unfortunately makes the use of his notes more difficult as his methods of transcriptions are equivocal, but yet on the average in one third of the cases in Arabic letters too. Forsskål’s contribution to the scientific knowledge of Arabic pharmacognosy is further important as his notes date from a time where the modern drugs were still not existing. Forsskål’s interest in the medical use of the naturalia are correlated to the contemporary interest in the possibility of using natural history practically and to economic ends. He nevertheless gives the impression of real scientific curiosity in his etnobotanical and medical notes.
As an example the plant Aristolochia bracteolata, which Forsskål gave the name Aristolochia sempervirens (Forsskål 1775b p. 156 nr. 4) may be mentioned. Forsskål wrote that it had the Arabic names Ghaga and Löæja. He also noted the names in Arabic, which enables us to write them as ghâqah and lu’iyyah following a more modern and scholarly way of transcribing. Forsskål wrote further: “Laudantur folia contrita, velut optimum medicamen vulneribus tendinosis. Sed contra morsus serpentum heroica sunt forlia rescentia, si contrita vulneri imponuntur & simul maducantur, vel decoctum eorum in lacte bibitur. Gustus ingratus & nauseosus est = The grinded leaves are almost praised as the best medicine for wounds (the word tendinosus is not found in Latin according to Professor Otto Steen Due, personal communication, and it must be an error of print or copying), but against snake bite the fresh leaves are heroic if they are grinded and are put on the bite wound and are chewed at the same time, or if a decoction of these are drunk in milk. The taste is unpleasant and causes nausea.” This plant is still used in folk medicine in Yemen against snake bites (Schopen 1983 p. 161). 


Forskål, P.: Descriptiones Animalium - Avium, amphiborum, insectorum, vermium quæ in itinere orientali observavit Petrus Forskål, post mortem auctoris edidit Carsten Niebuhr. København, 1775. [Forskål 1775a].
Forskål, P.: Flora Ægyptiaco-Arabica sive descriptiones plantarum quas per Ægyptum Inferiorem et Arabiam felicem detexit, illustravit Petrus Forskål; post mortem auctoris edidit Carsten Niebuhr. København 1775b. [Forskål 1775b]
Schopen, A. Traditionelle Heilmittel in Jemen. Wiesbaden : Steiner, 1983.