Ancient recipes are usually short texts; one can easily find more than one recipe written on a single papyrus sheet or on the page of a Byzantine manuscript. Despite their brevity, however, they open an invaluable window onto a wide array of techniques and practices used to manipulate the natural world. Ancient recipes could pertain to various fields of science and technology—from cosmetics to cookery, from agriculture to horse care. In this post, particular attention will be devoted to two contiguous and, to a certain extent, overlapping areas of expertise: medicine and alchemy. As we will see, the works of two important authors, Oribasius and Zosimus of Panopolis, reveal the ways that recipe collections forged new forms of knowledge transfer in the fourth century CE.
In 1901, Erich von Tschermak (1871–1962) produced a critical edition of Gregor Mendel’s (1822–1884) paper on “Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden”; and in the same year, William Bateson (1861–1926) submitted an English translation entitled “Experiments in Plant Hybridization” to the readers of the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society. Tschermak’s edition appeared as volume 121 of the renowned series Ostwalds Klassiker der exakten Naturwissenschaften (Ostwald’s Classic Texts in the Exact Sciences). Historians have rarely noted the paradox that lies in the fact that a paper, which scientists like von Tschermak and Bateson had lifted from obscurity just a year earlier, was almost instantaneously included in the Pantheon of classical contributions to the “exact” sciences. The discipline that Mendel supposedly founded, namely genetics, did not yet exist in 1901, and his alleged “discovery” of laws of inheritance would remain highly contested for at least another decade, even involving accusations of scientific misconduct.
Since Warren Weaver coined the term “molecular biology” in the late 1930s, technological innovation has driven the life sciences, from the analytical ultracentrifuge to high-throughput DNA sequencing. Within this long history, the invention of recombinant DNA techniques in the early 1970s proved to be especially pivotal. The ability to manipulate DNA consolidated the high-profile focus on molecular genetics, a trend underway since Watson and Crick’s double-helical model in 1953. But the ramifications of this technology extended far beyond investigating heredity itself. Biologists doing research on a wide variety of molecules, including enzymes, hormones, muscle proteins, RNAs, as well as chromosomal DNA, could harness genetic engineering to copy the gene that encoded their molecule of interest, from whatever organism they worked on, and put that copy in a bacterial cell, from which it might be expressed, purified, and characterized. Many life scientists who wanted to use recombinant DNA techniques were not trained in molecular biology. They sought technical know-how on their own in order to bring their labs into the vanguard of gene cloners. Manuals became a key part of this dissemination of expertise.