Masdevall’s ‘Antipyretic Opiate’, or: A Well-Travelled Recipe

By Stefanie Gänger

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, not only were medicinal substances exchanged across large distances along the veins of global trade, proselytizing, and imperialism, so too were recipes – practices and discourses about how to prepare or arrange substances, render them palatable, or more ‘effective’.

A case in point from the Iberian world are Masdevall’s ‘Antipyretic Opiate (opiate antifebril)’, a remedy named after its inventor, Joseph Masdevall (? – 1801), who devised it, according to his 1786 Account (Relación de las epidemias de calenturas pútridas y malignas, que en estos últimos años se han padecido en el Principado de Cataluña)’ in the context of his efforts to combat an epidemic of ‘putrid and malignant fevers’ in Aragón and Catalonia between 1783 and 1785[i]. Consisting of absinthe salt, ammoniac salt, stibiated tartar, emetic tartar as well as ‘Peruvian bark’ (cinchona), the ‘opiate’ was to be administered in a ‘sufficient quantity of absinth syrup’, and to be preceded by a purgative comprising various antimonial wines to ‘purify the sufferer’s blood’ as well as ‘viper water (aqua viperina)’ and either cream of tartar, confection of hyacinth, or Sal-Policrest, a sulphate salt.

 

Figure 1Credited, and celebrated, for subduing the epidemic, Masdevall and his ‘method’ immediately gained fame at home and, soon after, abroad. The ‘opiate’ was prepared, and administered throughout Spain and its empire, by physicians, military surgeons, hospital orderlies as well as – so it will seem from popular medical advice manuals such as Tomás Canals’s 1800 Domestic Treatise (Tratado doméstico)’, designed to ‘enlighten’ the inhabitants of Lima with ‘some (medical) knowledge’ householders, from the Bay of Gibraltar to the Viceroyalty of Peru. Italian and German translations of Masdevall’s ‘Account’ – the 1789 Relazione dell’epidemia sofferte nel Principato di Catalogna nell’anno 1783, and the 1792 Bericht über die Epidemien von faulen und bösartigen Fiebern welche in den letzten Jahren im Fürstenthum Catalonien geherrscht haben – spread the word to the Italian peninsula and the Holy Roman Empire, and news of the ‘curious medicine’, as Joseph Townsend phrased it in his 1791 Journey through Spain, also swiftly reached England and its growing Empire. The first French edition of Masdevall’s ‘Account’, the Medicines, or a Digest of the Method of Mr. Masdevall (Medicamens, et précis de la méthode de Mr. Masdevall), was published in New Orleans in 1796, then formally under Spanish rule, rather than in metropolitan France – presumably because epidemics of fevers were perpetually haunting the soggy terrain of Louisiana at the time. Nor did the recipe halt at boundaries of creed, or religious belief: when an epidemic was raging in the sultanate of Morocco in 1799 – particularly in Tangier, Meknes and Tétouan –, the Moroccan ‘Alawi court eventually chose to combat the ‘pestilence’ with the aid of Masdevall’s ‘method’.[ii]

While the recipe for the ‘opiate’ travelled far, it does appear that its preparation and administration retained, in some measure, a sense of place. Whereas the foreign-language editions of Masdevall’s Account generally contained literal, accurate translations of his ‘method’, manuscript recipe collections kept by men and women in the Swiss Confederation, the Italian territories or the Kingdom of France often encompassed abridged, or modified, versions of the original formula, presumably in line with a sufferer’s palate, belief, or means. A French recipe for ‘opiate’ ‘against the fevers’ contained betony syrup, in addition to cinchona, absinth salt, ammoniac salt, and vitriolated tartar (Wellcome Library / MS 4087); a Graubünden manuscript comprised a recipe for ‘opiate febrifuge’ consisting of absinth salt, cinchona, antimonial substances, absinth syrup and confection of hyacinth, as well as theriac, centaury salt, and gentian (Archiv für Medizingeschichte Zurich / MS J 4). Occasionally, alterations presumably responded to the practitioners’ creed: the Moroccan ‘Alawi court, for instance, insisted that the wine included in the recipe recipe ‘be replaced with vinegar’[iii].

The pervasiveness, and swiftness with which ‘Masdevall’s Opiate’ became popular, imposed identifiable modes of medical administration, and aligned therapeutic practices, in places as distant as Tangier and New Orleans, as Graubünden and Lima, speaks to how, for some healers and sufferers at least, the medical world had long become more cohesive and unified, and an altogether ‘smaller place’, by the late 1700s and early 1800s. This is not to say that the medical and pharmaceutical repertoire did not, in some measure, remain contingent; it is to say however, that the journeys of ‘well-travelled’ recipes like Masdevall’s ‘Antipyretic Opiate’ transcended, and fragmented, not just the boundaries of professional and lay healing, and of public health and popular, domestic medicine, but also those of Northern European, or Protestant, Islamic, and Iberian, or Catholic, medical practice.

I am still at the beginning of my research on the journeys of Masdevall and his ‘Antipyretic Opiate’ but I hope to have excited your curiosity; I will report more as the project progresses.

[i] For biographical information on Joseph – or José – Masdevall, Juan Riera Palmero, Juan Masdeval y la medicina española ilustrada. Enseñanza, epidemias y guerra a finales del siglo XVIII  (Valladolid: Secretariado de Publicaciones, 1980).

[ii] Braulio Justel Calabozo, “El doctor Masdevall. Protomédico del sultán Marroquí Muley Solimán,” Al-Andalus – Magreb II(1994): 180.

[iii] Ibid. 175.


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