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When people think of the history of medicine, people usually think Europe & Asia, but never in the Americas. The most advancements in the world were in Mexico in the region that people mostly call Meso-America.

Though there are thousands of plants, I will only focus on the basic information that would be the introduction to Pre-Columbian medicine. I’ll post some of my research on the plants along with some details if anyone is interested.

The ancient Nahuas had schools of medicine where people could study to become:

Medical Internist

Medical Surgeon




Eye Doctor


Ear Doctor

Then the conquest happened and it seemed as though medicine went into the dark ages.

Not all is lost; Two Nahuas by the name Martin De La Cruz and Juan Badiano, from the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, wrote a book about Herbal medicines known by many names. The original title for the book was Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis (Latin for Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians). Since it’s not PC, it also has other names: Badianus Manuscript (named after Juan Badiano), Codex de la Cruz-Badiano (named after both Martin De La Cruz & Juan Badiano) and Codex Barberini (named after Francesco Barberini since he owned the document for some time). For the sake of a name, I will calling it Codex de la Cruz-Badiano since both played an important part to this document. Martin De La Cruz wrote it in Nahuatl while Juan Badiano wrote it in Latin. It was completed in 1552. The Nahuatl text has been lost, but the Latin text still survives.

Very little is known on Martin De La Cruz and Juan Badiano. From what we know, Martin De La Cruz was a doctor before the conquest. What type of doctor is not really detailed in documents. Juan Badiano is believed to be born in 1484 from Chililico, Xochimilco born in nobility. At the age of 41, he was taken to the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, where he learned Spanish & Latin. He would later become a teacher in the school.

The introduction of the book:

A little book of the medicinal herbs of the Indians, which a certain Indian of the College of Santa Cruz composed, taught by no formal resonings but educated by experiments only. In the year of our Lord the Savior, 1552.

To the most eminent lord Francisco de Mendoza, the exalted son of the lord viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, the most illustrious superior of these Indies, Martin de la Cruz, his unworthy servitor, prays the greatest health and prosperity.

Since in thee the graces and ornaments of all the virtues shine, and those good gifts that are desired by any mortal, most magnificent lord, I in truth know not what in thee I may most praise. Indeed I do not see by what praises I may bring forth thy marked affection, with what words I may render thanks for thy exceeding beneficence. For thy father, a man most Christian and most devoted, I cannot find words to say how most of all he has favored me; for whatever I am, whatever I posses and whatever name I have, I owe to him. Nothing equal to, nothing worthy I find, for his beneficence. I can indeed render enormous thanks to my Maecenas, but can repay in the smallest degree. Wherefore, whatever I am, I offer myself, dedicate and consecrate myself to his service. Nor indeed to him alone, but also to thee, my most eminent lord, for the most sure sign and evidence of my singular affection.

For, as I suspect, it is for no other cause that this little book of herbs and medicaments is so urgently asked for by thee, than to commend the Indians, though so unworthy, to his royal Sacred Caesarean Catholic majesty. Would that we might make a book worthy the king’s view, for this is certainly most unworthy of coming into the sight of so great majesty; but remember that we poor and unfortunate Indians are inferior to all mortals, and thus our insignificance and poverty implanted in us by nature, merit forbearance. Now therefore I pray, most magnificent Sir, that this little book which by every right I should have put in thy name, thou shalt in this spirit receive from the hand of thy servant, through which it is offered; or, what I should wonder not at, thou shouldst throw it away as it deserves. Farewell.

At Tlatelulco. In the year of the Savior our Lord, 1552.

Of thy Excellency the most devoted servant.

This is the conclusion of the book:

Juan Badiano, interpreter to the honest reader, salutation.

Whatever the work brought together by me in the translation, such as it is, of this little book of plants, most excellent reader, again and again I beg that you will take with favor. Truly I had much rather this my labor had perished, than go under your most exact appraisement. You will further know that I have put a number of hours in succession into this edition, not thereby to show off my skill, which almost is nothing, but through the obedience which by highest right I owe to the sanctuary of St. James the Apostle and Patron of the Spaniards, as to its priests and superior the very reverend Franciscan father, friar Jacob de Grado, who laid this burden on my shoulders. Farewell in the Savior Christ. At Tlatilulco in the College of the Holy Cross, on feast day of St. Mary Magdalen, in the year of the redemption of the world, the fifteen hundred and fifty second.

The end of this little herbal book, to which Juan Badiano gave Latinity, Indian by nativity, a Xuchimilcan by country, teacher in the said college.

Glory be to him by whose grace I translated the book which you behold, good friend reader.

This may sound weird to the western mind, but the article shows the ancient Mexican humbleness.

The codex de la Cruz-Badiano would switched hand to hand until the Vatican had it in its own collection for many century.

It was only rediscovered in 1929 in the Vatican’s collection.

In May 1990, Pope John Paul II visited Mexico. While on this trip, the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano was a subject of conversation between the Pope and Mexico's President at the time, Carlos Salinas de Gortari (The only good deed he has done.). Later that summer, the Codex was returned to Mexico.

According to Dr. Carlos Viesca, 90 percent of the plants depicted in the Badianus manuscript are still used by curanderos in Mexico today.

I have gotten a copy of this book and noticing a lot of things. I thought Europeans influenced on natives by replacing native science of medicine with European science of medicine.

It wasn’t until this link that things started to make sense:


It explained a lot of things I had trouble with in the book.

For example the written in Codex de la Cruz-Badiano, it has references to black blood. Black blood (sometimes bad blood) in the middle ages in Europe was an explanation to why people were sick even though there was no scientific evidence to defend it. What makes it interesting is instead of black blood, they are actually trying to describe melancholia.

Though the book had very little influence, one of the weirdest cures in the book (cure for hiccups) was used in Europe for 200 years even though the plants in the recipe weren’t used especially since the names in the book were in Nahuatl.