Conference Report: Materia Medica on the Move, Leiden, 15-17 April 2015

By Sietske Fransen

What happens if you put together historians of early modern science and medicine, ethnobotanists, historians of pharmacy, and art historians in the Dutch National Biodiversity Center in Leiden? Last month this resulted in an amazing conference where we discussed the (global) movements of early modern materia medica. The conference was jointly organized by the Descartes Centre (Utrecht University), Huygens ING, and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre.

The conference was hosted by the project Time Capsule and was interdisciplinary to its core. The project’s aims and goals are wonderful, and deserve some explanation, so here it comes. Project Time Capsule has as aims to create a ‘semantic interoperable ontology’ of cultural heritage data. This ontology will consist of a combination of existing digital databases and new data, in order to provide historians as well as the creative industry with new methods for research. And the actual ‘time capsules’ – based on Andy Warhol’s project – are supposed to contextualize historical events or facts. To exemplify this exciting but rather mystifying concept, Time Capsule works specifically on data sets related to the history of medicinal plants in the Low Countries, c. 1550-1850. With a team of computer scientists and historians of science the project tries to set an example for further research into the development of digital resources. The final goal is to enable scholars to connect, compare and use an enormous amount of digital resources regarding early modern material medica.

A re-created sunflower, using real sunflower leaves in a herbarium of Felix Platter. Burgerbibliothek Bern, ES 70.6, fol. 155.
A re-created sunflower (native to the Americas), using real sunflower leaves in a herbarium of Felix Platter. Burgerbibliothek Bern, ES 70.6, f. 155.

The conference started at Museum Boerhaave with a key-note lecture by Florike Egmond, who  the introduction of non-European ‘medical’ plants into the European context. Even though there were not that many exotic plants actually introduced in European medicine in the sixteenth century, it is remarkable to see that they did gain a rather prominent present in visual sources such as herbaria, prints, and paintings. One of Egmond’s concluding questions and useful pointers for the rest of the conference was to wonder what ‘exotic’ or ‘indigenous’ really means. How long does a plant need to be grown in Europe to be no longer exotic?

The following two days took place at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre. One of the most exciting papers (at least to me) was given by ethnobotanist Tinde van Andel.

Materia Medica on the Move - Tinde van Andel
Key-note lecture by Tinde van Andel

Van Andel showed us how the movement of knowledge about local plants can be traced by following African slaves from their home countries to the Surinam rain forests. Combining ethnobotanical and anthropological field research in West-Africa and Surinam with historical botany and linguistics Van Andel argues that enslaved Africans reinvented their household medicine in the New World. Van Andel’s research demonstrates clearly how the knowledge of plants travelled with the people and was adapted to the needs of surviving on a new continent. Through trial and error and comparison with the knowledge they brought about African flora, the slaves figured out which new but similar plants could be used as medication and food. 

Historian of Pharmacy Sabine Anagnostou, used pharmacopeias in Europe and America to research the transfer of medicinal plants and drugs. She not only looks at the import of exotic plants into Europe, but also at the building and use of pharmacies in the New World. Jesuits were of major importance in the development of such institutions, and would use their own knowledge of European plants in combination with local knowledge in these New World settings. She argues, amongst other things, that there is still a higher amount of European plants present in the American pharmacopeias then the other way around.

Harold Cook delivered the final key note lecture about the ‘Atlantic drug trade and the new sciences’. Cook argued convincingly that we need to study the developments in the use of drugs at the large plantations in the Caribbean to explain the globalization as well as entrepreneurship that started to become connected with medicine from the eighteenth century onwards.

Harold Cook, key-note lecture.
Harold Cook, key-note lecture.

The owners of big plantations were looking for a universal medicine that would cure any disease, in any situation, in any person, with the best possible outcome. The idea behind this was to make sure that ill people could go back to working again as soon as possible. According to Cook the impersonality of these developments (from drugs aimed at an individual to drugs aimed at large groups of people) should be seen and studied (!) as major issues in the changing perception of social medicine in the 17th and 18th century.

Unfortunately this blog is too short to give a description of all papers, but a brief report of all presentations can be found here. The papers covered topics like botanical gardens in Leiden, Poland and Russia; testing of new and unfamiliar drugs in both European and Asian contexts; and the materiality and circulation of herbaria in Early modern Europe. Just as examples I would like to mention Alexandra Cook’s paper on the approval of exotica in a European medical context. She argued that both ginseng and tea (after they were brought to the West) were for a while seen as universal medicines. However, during the eighteenth century, these unproven claims were no longer seen as valid. This lead to reports based on observations and experience in which the qualities of the exotic drugs were systematically described. A last example comes from Davina Blankert, who showed us how the Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin and the Veronese apothecary Giovanni Pona discussed exotic plants in their correspondence. Blankert argues that the scholars utilization of plant names with few plant descriptions demonstrates that both were conversant in their knowledge of exotic plants using similar nomenclature and terminology. Bauhin would later publish his acquired knowledge about exotic plants in his famous book Pinax theatri botanici.

Gaspard Bauhin, Pinax theatri botanici, Basel 1623. Title page.
Gaspard Bauhin, Pinax theatri botanici, Basel 1623. Title page.

Bringing together so many different scholars, methods, used materials, and questions seems exactly the point of Warhol’s Time Capsule project. Fortunately for us, the focus of this specific project is not the daily life of Warhol but the ‘daily life’ of materia medica between 1550 and 1850. The conference gave a wonderful view into the research that can be done when material will be collected and brought together in digital form. The current scholars working on all these different aspects of materia medica will hopefully be the providers of the content as much as they should be able benefit from the integration of the all the existent cultural heritage data.


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