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From Experimental Science to Science History

Annamma Spudich, NCBS/TIFR

Part 1

“…the India trade was the backbone of the international economy in the Middle Ages in general and within the Islamic world in particular. More than anything else, it stimulated inter-territorial traffic, furthered the rise of a flourishing merchant class and created close and fruitful links between the countries of Islam and the Far East on the one hand and Europe on the other.” (1)

More than thirty years ago, while leafing through old Herbals in the Cambridge University Library, I came across an image of the “Arched Indian Fig Tree” Ficus bengalensis (Fig. 1) in “The Herbal or the General History Of Plants” from the 16thc (2). The author, the Elizabethan herbalist and apothecary John Gerard, had images and therapeutic uses of 200 plants “from the Indies” in the book, among descriptions of more than a thousand medicinal plants all “from forreine places all the varietie of herbs.”  This unexpected finding aroused my curiosity and set me on an intellectual quest that has brought me away from my career as an experimental scientist to intellectual horizons I had not anticipated.

Other herbals I found at the Cambridge library and in other rare book libraries and collections during my career as a cell biologist (3,4) showed that vast amounts of Indian botanical medical knowledge was available in Europe and the Pan Asian world in the pre-modern era. These books also provided glimpses of the trade networks that were conduits for this knowledge transfer and how Indian botanical medical knowledge influenced practices of healing traditions of these regions.


Recent genetic (5), archeological and textual evidence (6) suggest that, since very early times, large-scale migrations of people along coastal areas and trade and exchange of commodities were integral to the evolution of societies. India was the source of many commodities coveted throughout the world, and peninsular India surrounded by oceans was engaged in maritime activity dating back almost 5000 years. Ship motifs on a stone seal and a terracotta amulet from Mohenjo-daro (7) and findings at the archeological sites at Lothal suggest that seafaring activities were part of early Indian cultures. What the author of Periplus of the Erythraen Sea (8) described in the mid first century AD were well traveled maritime routes already in existence, probably from a couple of centuries earlier.

Throughout the medieval world Indian spices and aromatics were essential food flavorings, medicines, unguents for worship and burial rituals, and personal adornment as perfumes and aphrodisiacs. And along with fine cottons, dyed textiles and other manufactured goods, spices and medicines were important items of trade. Indian physicians were renowned throughout the world for their sophisticated medical therapies and knowledge of healing plants. Communities of Indian and international traders engaged in intra-and inter-regional trade of these coveted commodities lived along the coastal cities of Southwest India, and the Malabar Coast in particular was a nexus of international trade (1, 8, 9, 10). As part of the trade networks (Fig.2), Indian traders settled in South East Asia, North Africa and West Asia, taking with them cultural and philosophical concepts and healing traditions. Trade was the conduit for transfer of knowledge and philosophical ideas, and the culture of India has had lasting influences on the pan Asian and European cultures.

Fig 2

By the middle ages the trade with India, managed by Indian, Middle Eastern and South East Asian merchants, connected the world. We find a merchant one year in India, and the following year in Spain and Morocco selling Oriental products, it stands to reason that his activities in the farthest West were closely connected with those in the countries of the Indian Ocean.” (1) While Europe was the final destination for most of these goods, European merchants were not part of the trading networks until the goods reached the Middle East. But the picture changed dramatically in 1498, when after long years of preparation and competition with Spain, a fleet of ships under the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut on the Malabar Coast. Portugal thus established direct European maritime trade with India. The voyages of Columbus sponsored by Spain with the same objective, on the other hand, discovered the Americas. It is fair to say that search for a direct route to the Malabar Coast for access to the medicines, spices and natural products was the impetus for the European “Voyages of Discovery” in the pre-modern era that changed the geography and culture of the world.

I made these preliminary and exciting discoveries for myself while I was still working as an experimental scientist. I was captivated by the history and influences of Indian botanical medical knowledge systems and wanted to devote more time to this new area of study. So instead of waiting for the “retirement period,” I decided to leave experimental science to study the history of the global impact of botanical medical knowledge from India during the pre-modern era. I hoped that my background in experimental biology and my cultural and linguistic connections with South West India would give me a unique perspective.

For almost ten years now I have found treasure troves of books on India trade, early maps of trade routes and art influenced by India trade in rare book library collections around the world.  During a two-year appointment as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, UCSF, I initiated a series of interviews in Kerala with renowned scholars, village vaidyas and tribal healers, all practitioners skilled in the history of Malabar healing traditions. I discovered an immense wealth of related material available in India.  In the next few issues I will present a synopsis of my work so far highlighting these findings and details of two exhibitions I was invited to curate, one at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University in 2003(**), and the other at the NCBS/TIFR, Bangalore in 2008 (11). 

Annamma Spudich, July 2012


1. Goitein, S.D. and Freidman, M.A., India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza, “India Book,” Brill, Leiden, 2008.

2. Gerard, J., The Greate Herball: General Historie of Plants, John Norton, London, 1597.

3. Braunstein, D. and Spudich, A., Structure and activation dynamics of RBL-2H3 cells observed with scanning force microscopy, Biophys. J., vol. 66, pp. 1717-25, 1994.

4. Spudich, A. and Braunstein, D., Large secretory structures at the cell surface imaged with scanning force microscopy. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., vol. 92, pp. 6976-80. 1995.                   

5. Appenzeller, T., Human migrations: Eastern odyssey. Nature, vol. 485, pp 24-6, 2012.

6. Thapar, R., The Theory of Aryan Race and India: History and Politics, Social Scientist, vol. 24, pp. 3-29, 1996.

8. Singh, U., A History of Ancient and Medieval India, Pearson, 2012.

7. Sarma, I.K. in, Maritime Heritage of India, K. S. Behera, Ed., Aryan Books International, Delhi, 1999.

9. Majumdar, R.C., Periplus Maris Erytharei, in The Classical Accounts of India, Firma KLM Private Ltd. Calcutta, 1960.

10. Casson, L., New Light on Maritime Loans: P.VINDOB. G 40822, aus: Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, vol. 84, pp. 195-206, 1990.

11.Spudich, A., “SUCH TREASURE AND RICH MERCHANDIZE: Indian Botanical knowledge in 16th and 17th Century European Books,” Exhibition Catalog, NCBS, Bangalore, 2008.

About the AuthorAnnamma Spudich did her doctoral and postdoctoral work in Cell Biology at Stanford University. For twenty-five years she worked as an experimental scientist at Stanford. During her career as an experimental scientist, she developed a keen interest in Indian scientific traditions, especially the botanical medical traditions of South West India. About ten years ago Dr. Spudich left laboratory research to focus on the history of botanical-medical knowledge systems of South West India during the pre-colonial era. She has curated two exhibits highlighting the unique contributions of Indian botanical medical knowledge to science and medicine in the pre-modern world, at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University in 2003 (http://www.hindu.com/mp/2008/03/11/stories/2008031150630400.htm),   and in 2008 at NCBS/TIFR, Bangalore.  (http://museum.stanford.edu/news_room/archived_exhibitions_2003_forreine_...).  Dr. Spudich is a visiting professor and scholar in Residence at the NCBS/TIFR, Bangalore

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