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If you are interested in history, there will likely come a time when the thoughts and writings of others are no longer sufficient and you will seek out the original primary sources to study. What did those people in the past who interest you actually write? How did those who were actually there, describe it all?

In some fields you will be blessed with full access to digitized texts, contemporary translations and a plethora of documents to satisfy your thirst for the past. In others, however, you will find things considerably drier. And, this is where I currently find myself.

I have recently been writing a history of drug research, and while the 20th and 21st centuries are there for the picking, anything before that is shrouded in either linguistic complexity or locked away in the cupboards of libraries older than the books and papers themselves.

In some cases, I have managed to visit these ancient institutions and have found myself sitting, marveling at an old book before me, frightened to touch it even though I was assured it was alright to do so. I have found myself wondering who last read a particular volume and indeed if it had ever been read at all. Has it been sitting on a shelf for 300 years waiting for me to come along? That thought, while thrilling, is also rather daunting for I’m not sure I was what the books were expecting, after so long a wait.

In other cases, I have relied of the kindnesses of strangers in foreign lands who have bothered to help. I have never yet met a librarian who wasn’t willing to make the seemingly impossible happen, and in a few instances that’s exactly what they appeared to do as they would uncover, extract and scan archaic sections of probably priceless works for me.

But, if there is one thing I have learned in the course of writing this book, it is that I should have studied German. Latin, Greek and Arabic would have helped too, but German is what I really needed. Many of the key texts that I wished to read and understand to tell the story of how we have developed our modern understanding of pharmacology are written in rather old German and almost none have ever been translated. This, in my rather arrogant native-English speaking way, surprised me, for I thought some of the texts that I wished to read would have been of sufficient interest to have merited the interpretative attentions of many previous scholars. But no, there they are still written in gothic script, defying me.

The German-speaking world was the power-house behind modern chemistry and pharmacology; it is where many of the innovations of medicinal chemistry were made; and it is quite literally where ‘pharmacology’ was invented. So, it will be no surprise to learn that all those involved wrote in German—in old, complicated German—in old, complicated, German, gothic script where all the capital letters look ornately the same.

It is at this point that you have to find a few friends, willing and able to help. Fortunately, I knew some people who were both, and between us and with an occasional spot of help from Google Translate, I have now navigated my way through the obituaries of some lesser known professors and deciphered their words—words which I have found deserve to read by modern day scientists. If I have been able to take those who are long forgotten and make them live again and give their words, buried in obscure texts that were gathering dust, a new voice, I will feel that my work has been worthwhile. But, it has not been easy.

Although I should not complain, for my travails are as of nothing compared to the troubles of others. As you read this, there is a team in a Paris laboratory firing lasers at charred rolled up papyri from a library in Herculaneum. Sophisticated imaging techniques involving CT scanning are being used to painstakingly unravel, in a virtual sense, these tightly bound scrolls. But once they have done that, they then have to decipher black, carbon-based inks against a black charred page; then they have to piece together fragments and reconstruct a text; then they have to read the hand-written classical Greek and Latin; and finally they have to work out what it all says. It would be a pity, if after all that, it was a Roman laundry list. But what they are hoping for are undiscovered masterpieces, classical texts thought to be long-lost and perhaps even the only surviving copies of works like Virgil’s Aeneid, written in his lifetime.

All I had to deal with were the barriers of language and access. I had no volcano to contend with, but there was still a mountain to climb. Discovery is not easy; nor should it be. There are wonders that await those who are willing to put in the hours, for that is often what it takes. Inspiration and the occasional flash of genius are always welcome, but it’s the graft that usually matters in the end.

© Allan Gaw 2015

My books available on kindle:

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