Category Archives: Conferences

Testing Drugs and Trying Cures Workshop Summary

By Ashley Buchanan and Tillman Taape

What did it mean to test a drug or try a cure in the early modern world? This was the central question for a group of scholars who gathered for a workshop at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany.  Since recipes emerged as one of the key themes throughout the workshop, and because the conference’s location in Berlin made it difficult for scholars outside of Europe to attend, we thought we might share a brief summary of the “Testing Drugs and Trying Cures” papers, in the hopes that we could bring the workshop’s key ideas and discussions to a larger audience.  What emerged from an exhilarating two days of discussion and debate was the conclusion that historians of science and medicine should not privilege experiment and experimentation as fixed categories, but should understand the multiple ways in which physicians, apothecaries, artisans, institutions, and individuals in the early modern world tested, tried, investigated, experienced, modified, observed, and measured medicinal remedies and materiae medicae.

As written forms of medical and pharmaceutical knowledge and practice, recipes played an important part in the testing of drugs and cures, and our discussion raised larger questions surrounding the nature and purpose of an early modern recipe.

A miniature depicting the Schola Medica Salernitana from a copy of Avicenna’s Canons.  From Wikimedia Commons.

Michael McVaugh’s paper opened the discussion by exploring how medieval physicians went about testing drugs. Learned doctors in the Middle Ages might appear helplessly hidebound, and inclined to follow ancient authorities over experimentation. In contrast, McVaugh showed how a group of Montpellier physicians in the fourteenth century established something of an experimental program. Medieval physicians, however, were not testing to find a cure, but to determine the quality, strength, and effectiveness of a drug as it pertained to a particular person’s complexion. McVaugh underscored an important difference in the purpose of medieval drug testing. Physicians tested not for universal effectiveness, but to determine the quality of a drug – was it hot, cold, moist, or dry.

Title page of the Academy’s Observations sur les eaux minérales (1675). From

Although it became clear in our roundtable discussion that we should be wary of labeling such practices as obvious precursors to the experimental philosophies of the Scientific Revolution, many of the papers showed that the importance of specific tests resonated throughout the early modern period. Evan Ragland’s paper, for example, traced the use of the phrase periculum facere (‘to make a trial’) in physicians’ writings on medicine, anatomy and chemistry. Similarly, Michael Bycroft showed that French physicians and chemical experts of the Académie des Sciences became increasingly interested in the exact composition of mineral waters. Contrived tests such as color indicators or the analysis of residues after evaporation increasingly became the touchstone of proper inquiry.

McVaugh, Ragland, and Bycroft’s papers all underscored the need to understand the specific nature and purpose of testing in each historical context. Continuing to emphasize the importance of historical context, Francesco Paulo de Ceglia’s paper showed just how different the purpose of testing could be in the context of seventeenth century blood miracles in the Kingdom of Naples. Catholics tested the liquefaction of the blood of their patron saint to explore the limits of nature. By discovering nature’s limits, you could then determine what was truly miraculous. Protestants, on the other hand, tested various materials and recipes to recreate the liquefaction of blood to cast doubt on the alleged miracle.

Reliquary containing a glass ampoule of San Gennaro’s blood. From La Repubblica.

In the context of testing, drugs and cures are often under scrutiny in the form of recipes detailing their production and administration. While recipes emerged from many of the papers as very important forms of knowledge, it proved virtually impossible to define exactly what a recipe was. Recipes can be very short or very detailed, ranging from a mere list of ingredients to careful step-by-step instructions. If there is one thing recipes have in common, it is the need for testing, trying, modifying and adapting to different conditions. While constructing an all-encompassing definition of a recipe proved futile, all agreed that it was fruitful to understand recipes as an important genre in early modern science and medicine.


For her investigation on the testing practices of Venetian apothecaries, Valentina Pugliano emphasized the difference between experiment and experience. Venetian apothecaries were less concerned with testing drugs (in a traditional sense) than they were with the experience or truthfulness of their ingredients. Testing by inspection, smell and taste was also important in this pharmaceutical context, to ensure that the ingredients were what the merchant had promised them to be, and not a cheap substitute with inferior properties. For Pugliano’s apothecaries, the important issue that required testing was the authenticity of the ingredients rather than the efficacy of the finished product; after all, most preparations had proved their worth since antiquity. Like McVaugh, Pugliano questioned traditional “Baconian” understandings of what it meant to experiment and test and argued for more nuanced notions of testing and trying, which included observing, measuring, evaluating, and experiencing.

Title page of Johannes Christophorus Homann’s Dissertatio inauguralis medica de medicinae cum geosophia nexu quam auspice deo prpitio (Hala Madgeburica, Hendelius, 1725). From

With early modern Europeans’ increasing forays into the New World, however, more and more materiae medicae were found which were absent from ancient medical writings. Pliny and Dioscorides were silent on such substances as guaiacum wood, Peruvian bark or New World balsam, so their medicinal properties had to be newly investigated. Antonio Barrera-Osorio and Samir Boumediene’s papers added America, or the New World, into the discussion. Both emphasized the role of new drugs and materia medica in the rise of European experimental practices. New drugs and new medicinal recipes required new ways of testing.

Antonio Barrera-Osorio’s paper argued for an empirical culture in the Spanish empire, which was well suited to respond to these challenges. He showed how his protagonists gathered information about New World remedies from natives or travellers and experimented with ways of preparing them. Some of these drugs and recipes were deemed so important for the economy and health of the empire that the Spanish crown ordered tests in hospitals all over Castile. Samir Boumediene’s paper elaborated on the issue of making workable recipes for newly discovered drugs. Once more, taste and smell were important assays, but drugs such as guaiacum and Peruvian bark were also tested on a larger scale. Dispensing them to the poor inmates of charitable hospitals (as happened in France and Germany) helped to determine their effect, and to establish recipes, which indicated how to adjust the treatment in individual cases.

Andreas Cleyer, Specimen Medicinae Sinicae (Frankfurt, 1682). From

Gianna Pomata and Marta Hanson’s paper showed how recipes also functioned as vehicles of knowledge between different cultures. Recipes, as either formula or prescription, were both found in European and Chinese medical cultures. According to Pomata and Hanson, it was the familiar genre of the recipe that facilitated the transmission of Chinese pharmacology to Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century. Similarly, Carla Nappi argued that the Manchu medicinal recipes of the Qing court were spaces of encounter and medical translation in the early modern world. Pomata, Hanson, and Nappi demonstrated how the recipe served as the common ground between European and Chinese medicine and made the translation of Chinese pulse medicine and the transmission of Chinese materia medica possible in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Although recipes are difficult to characterize as a genre, it is clear that they are fascinating objects of historical study. More often than not, they are fluid rather than fixed forms of knowledge, requiring adaptation at every turn. They bring together ingredients, practices and often practitioners from all over the world, and themselves have a tendency to aggregate into larger collections. As written manifestations of gestures and processes, they play an important part in testing, assessing and modifying drugs and cures.

Conference announcement: Trading Medicines

Known as a seron in its native Peru, South America, this rawhide bag was used to store and carry cinchona bark. For centuries, local people had chewed or ground up the bark as a treatment for fevers and malaria. As the European powers began to expand both their trade routes and empires, cinchona became a highly important commodity. In the early 1800s, quinine, the primary anti-malarial component of cinchona, was first isolated, allowing the production of more effective drugs to combat the disease. The bag was originally collected by the expedition of Hipolito Ruiz Lopez and Antonio Pavon y Jimienz, which was sent to Peru in 1777 by the Spanish monarch Charles III to explore the region. The bag was later presented to the Wellcome collections by Alfonso XIII, King of Spain (1886-1941), in 1930 © Wellcome Images
Known as a seron in its native Peru, South America, this rawhide bag was used to store and carry cinchona bark. For centuries, local people had chewed or ground up the bark as a treatment for fevers and malaria. As the European powers began to expand both their trade routes and empires, cinchona became a highly important commodity. In the early 1800s, quinine, the primary anti-malarial component of cinchona, was first isolated, allowing the production of more effective drugs to combat the disease. This was originally collected by Hipolito Ruiz Lopez and Antonio Pavon y Jimienz during their 1777 expedition in Peru. In 1930, Alfonso XIII, King of Spain (1886-1941) presented it to the Wellcome Collections. in 1930 © Wellcome Images

Trading Medicines: The Global Drug Trade in Perspective
10th January 2014, The London School of Economics

Organized by Clare Griffin (Cambridge) and Patrick Wallis (LSE)

This half-day workshop examines the supply and reception of medical drugs during the creation of an early modern global market from the sixteenth through to the eighteenth centuries. It addresses a key question in the history of medicine: how did early modern globalisation impact medicine in Europe?

The workshop explores developments across various European nations, their empires, and global trading networks. Papers will focus on the broad sweep of medical commodities that were exchanged, taking a long view and considering as many different substances as possible, in order to build a big picture of developments across the early modern period.

For more information see:

To register email: Dr Clare Griffin at

A History of Science Spectacular in Manchester

By Laura Mitchell

People standing in a museum at a reception, with a dinosaur skeleton behind them.
The opening night reception at the Museum of Manchester. All photos by the author.

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to present a paper at the 24th International Congress on History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM), which was held at the University of Manchester from July 21st to 28th. The congress operates under the auspices of the Division of History of Science and Technology of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS/DHST) and the 24th congress was organized by the British Society for the History of Science. Held every four years, this year’s congress had the theme of “Knowledge at Work”. Because this was such a large conference with such a broad range, I am going to divide up my post thematically: Social Media, Sessions and Public  Events.


Well before the start of the conference, the organisers of the iCHSTM were dedicated to giving it a strong presence in social media. This can only be a good thing with the way that social media and academia seem to be joining up, especially in the blogosphere and on Twitter. First, the iCHSTM organisers have had a conference blog running since May. This began with select presenters offering brief descriptions of the papers they were to present, and evolved to include a daily “Congress Transmission” that provided summaries of the previous day’s events and any updates to the day’s program.

There is a conference Flickr page, updated as the conference progressed, that will give readers a glimpse of everything that was going on (and if you look carefully you may see your intrepid reporter in there somewhere).

For those who missed the conference–or even conference attendees who want to catch something again–there is a iCHSTM Youtube page, which has videos of many public events, including some great comedy bits from the Bright Club night.

The iCHSTM has a very active Twitter page and dedicated hashtags for the conference (#iCHSTM #histsci #histech #histmed). These were great resources for finding out the latest news and changes, as well as for following the livetweeting of sessions throughout the conference.


Charles Burnett of the Warburg Institute presents on the works of Ptolemy in medieval Europe.

The number of sessions and presenters at the conference was impressive: nearly 1400 presenters in 411 sessions, according to the website. The topics ranged from ancient astrology to asbestos in 1940s Quebec. As a result, it is impossible to do justice to the sheer breadth and variety of papers that were given in Manchester. Here is a sampling…

In a session that I chaired, “Spaces and Practical Knowledge”, Anita Guerrini of Oregon State University discussed “The Ghastly Kitchen”. The early modern kitchen, she argued, was a site of life science, namely, dissection. It was an ideal place for conducting scientific experiments, being where instruments for dissection were kept and the cooking of animal parts occured. As well, senses such as taste and smell were important in discovering the properties of objects. Audio of her paper can be found, along with that of other iCHSTM bloggers, here.

In a session on “Geology and Literature”, Gowan Dawson (University of Leicester) spoke on “Dickens, Dinosaurs and Design”, comparing the harmony of Charles Dickens’s serialised novels with the perceived harmony and order of dinosaur skeletons. Dawson looked at the language used by both Dickens and his friend Richard Owen, a comparative anatomist. Dawson suggested that Dickens drew on the procedure and terminology that Owen used for the preparation of skeletons for display. Although the work of these two men may seem miles apart, both men wanted to bring about a similar harmony in their work, or a “fusing together” of vertebrae and chapters.

In the same session, Stephen M. Rowland (University of Nevada Las Vegas) examined “Mark Twain and Historical Sciences”. Twain wrote about science throughout his career (such as Paleontology in 1871 and Life on the Mississippi in 1883), and also interjected scientific remarks into his fiction works like Tom Sawyer. Rowland presented a number of examples from Twain’s prolific career, arguing that Twain followed scientific developments. Although Twain’s early works poked fun at new ideas and reflected contemporary American skepticism, Twain later used the respectability of science to argue against religious fundamentalism and Biblical literalism.

Janine Rogers (Mount Allison University) combined two of my favourite things– codicology and museums–in “The Medieval Codex and Early Science Collections and Museums”. She argued that there is a connection between the medieval codex and its focus on ordinatio and compilatio and early collections and museums. Compilatio viewed the compiler of the medieval book as God’s editor; thus, the book was a mirror of the universe. It was tied to the idea of unio, a union of all knowledge. Similarly, ordinatio, the placement of texts and images on the page, was a theological activity. Even the grotesque marginal imagery served to discuss or critique the main text. Rogers contends there was a similar adherence in early science collections and museums to the idea of knowledge be all-encompassing. The ideal museum, particularly in Victorian architecture, mirrored the layout of the ideal manuscript page, enclosing all knowledge within its walls.

Constance Putnam delivered a fascinating paper on the practice of rural medicine in the mid-twentieth century and the acquisition of medical knowledge by those not formally trained (“Knowledge-making in a rural general practice in mid twentieth-century America). Putnam’s research drew on the archive of thousands of her mothers’ letters. Her mother was not formally trained in medicine, but worked for decades as a laboratory technician and medical assistant with her husband in rural New England. Putnam’s archive demonstrates that the role of wives working in unofficial capacities was necessary for a rural medical practice to succeed.


iCHSTM also included a number of excursions to introduce attendees to Manchester and its involvement in the history of science, and public events to engage the wider population. These events included a tour of the Old Trafford, historical tours of Manchester, an Alan Turing opera, a Victorian séance event, a beer festival, and several musical performances.

Mr. Selwyn (Tim Cockerill) demonstrates some explosive properties on an audience member.
Some of the authentic 19th-century equipment used in the Victorian Science Spectacular.

One of the most…explosive was the Victorian Science Spectacular. This was presented as a demonstration of Victorian science in the 1890s. Four presenters: Aileen Fyfe as Miss Ann Veronica Stanley, a learned scientific gentlewoman; Katy Price as Mr. George Wells, inventor and brother of H.G.; Iwan Rhys Morus as Professor Marmaduke Salt of the Royal Panopticon of Popular Science; and Tim Cockerill as Mr Selwyn, chemical conjuror and assistant to Professor Salt took turns to present their apparatus to the audience. The demonstration consisted of experiments involving electricity, such as telegraphy and Jacob’s ladders, and demonstrations of the latest magic lanterns and cinematographs. With a few exceptions they used authentic period pieces. This was a fascinating look into the kinds of experiments that were used in the public scientific demonstrations of the nineteenth century, and how they blended entertainment with education. The question period following brought up a number of questions about the reaction of contemporary audiences, the practicalities of transporting the apparatus, and how this presentation has been used to engage the public with the history of science.

James Sumner subjects an innocent pint of beer to suspicious looking chemicals.

One of the highlights of the conference was James Sumner’s talk “Chemists, brewers and beer-doctors”, given in the local pub on Wednesday night. Sumner, co-organiser of the Congress, gave a demonstration of the chemical changes that unscrupulous “beer-doctors” performed on beer in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the price of malt dependent on the harvest, it became difficult to make a profit during the years of bad harvests. Thus, brewers turned to chemicals and science to turn a watered down pint into something indistinguishable from its full-powered brethren. Sumner subjected a pint of beer to many of the same chemicals that were used by these brewers, including innocuous substances like caramel colouring and vinegar. However, he refrained from the more dangerous substances like the metals that were used to give the impression of drunkenness (and which could lead to death in the wrong amounts). If this topic interests you be sure to check out Sumner’s new book, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700-1880, which has just come out from Pickering & Chatto.

iCHSTM held a Bright Club comedy night following Sumner’s beer presentation, with five brave academics performing sets. This was a fun evening with a lot of great humour. Who knew that asbestos could be funny? All of the routines from the evening are online at the iCHSTM’s Youtube page so you don’t have to take my word for the quality, you can see for yourself.

The next congress will be held in the summer of 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, so keep an eye out if you want to catch this great conference the next time around.

The Politics of Food: Food in History at the Anglo-American Conference 2013

Editors’ note: This is our second conference report on the Anglo-American Conference 2013. Sally Osborn’s post considers the domestic and institutional spaces of food.

By Rachel Rich

I started working on food history in 1996. People often smirked when I mentioned it. It seemed like a little topic, something that wouldn’t help answer the big questions about human identity and experience. Yet eating is one of the few universals: thinking about how differently it has been organised across time and space provides amazing insights into class, gender and ethnic identities. With the choice of ‘Food in History’ as the theme for this year’s Anglo-American Conference, food history has finally come of age. A wide range of periods were covered, from classical antiquity to the Arab spring, and everything in between. Some people discussed a particular food, such as milk or bread. One intriguing paper (by Rebecca Ford, University of Nottingham) was even more specific, focusing on the social and cultural geography of watercress in nineteenth-century England. But ‘Food in History’ was given a wide scope, going far beyond discussions of food and recipes, in ways that showed the possibility for telling all sorts of cultural and political stories by understanding what we eat, with whom, how we shop for it, and the routes it has had to travel to reach us.

Read the rest of this post (complete with some of the Twitter discussion!) on Storify: