Testing Drugs and Trying Cures

By Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin

Miniature (no. 37.181) from 15th century manuscript in Dresden: Galen, and assistant with a pestle and mortar, and a scribe in an apothecary’s shop. © Wellcome Images

As readers of this blog well know, early modern Europe was aflood with recipes and drugs. One central question has long preoccupied many of us –  just how did our historical actors assess, test and try out recipes, drugs and materia medica? A few summers ago, a group of historians of science and medicine gathered to discuss just this question. This month, we present our ideas and findings in a special issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. To celebrate the launch of the special issue, several authors of the volume will share their work on The Recipes Project. Tuesday’s post revisited Ashley Buchanan and Tillmann Taape‘s report on the original 2014 conference. Over the next few weeks, we’ll learn more about the research of Erik Heinrichs, Valentina Pugliano, Alisha Rankin and Justin Rivest. Finally, Tillmann Taape, who just completed his PhD at the University Cambridge (congrats!) also adds his voice to the series by reflecting on how theme of drug testing features in his doctoral dissertation.

To get us started on our month of ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’, we wanted to say a few words as the organizers and editors of the project. First, you might ask, what do we mean by ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’? Over the course of the project, we found that it was useful to view ‘testing drugs’ and ‘trying cures’ as two overlapping but distinct phenomena.

As the essays in the special issue show, physicians and apothecaries developed clear rules and practices for testing drugs as materials – from sensory analysis of materia medica to chemical analysis of substances like mineral waters or alchemical medicines. This kind of ‘testing drugs’ largely focused on gaining knowledge on the substances’ medicinal properties and played a particularly significant role in the discovery and adoption of materia medica from the New World and in assessing and establishing authenticity of exotic and/or expensive medicaments.

Paolo Antonio Barbieri, The Spice Shop, 1637. Image from Wikimedia.

‘Trying cures’, on the other hand, describes the widespread practice of trying remedies and other kinds of cures on human bodies. If ‘testing drugs’ was mainly conducted by learned physicians and apothecaries, ‘trying cures’ was performed by a broad range of healers. Within the home, women and men applied and observed the effects of remedies on family and household members. Likewise, physicians and other practitioners prescribed diets, medicines and other cures to their patients, again observing and recording the effects. Ample evidence of this kind of ‘trying cures’ survive in a range historical sources from the use of ‘probatum est’ to expressions of personal experience, customisation and rejection of recipes in household recipe collections (for more on this, see posts here and here).

For us, these two categories ‘testing drugs and ‘trying cures’ serve as helpful heuristic tools to untangle the assessment practices used by early modern practitioners. We see the two categories not as separate boxes but rather as overlapping and often intertwined practices. Many healers merged testing and trying by using patient tests to determine a substance’s properties or to refine methodologies in both drug production and application. These themes of testing and trying occupied a central place in the making of medical knowledge across a vast chronological span and broad geographical regions and social contexts. The essays in the special issue examine these crucial knowledge practices in Europe c. 1300-1800 (go here for a table of contents).

Several main themes emerged from this collaborative project. First, medicine was always an experiential art and the essays in the special issue demonstrate clear continuities between the learned physicians’ uses of experience/experiment in the Middle Ages and early modern experimental interests. Learned medicine made deliberate use of experience from a very early date and pharmacy was an area where the gathering of experiential knowledge was particularly pronounced. The senses – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing – played vital roles in determining the properties of drugs and their effects on the human body.

Concurrently, as many essays in the volume demonstrate, structured drug testing had a long history. Medieval physicians developed meticulous rules for drug testing, as Michael McVaugh’s essay shows, although they left no record of actual medical trials. This focus on establishing protocols for drug testing continues throughout the medieval and early modern period, with significant expansion in scale and scope. By the eighteenth century, the testing of mineral spa waters (in Michael Bycroft’s essay) or proprietary drugs (in Justin Rivest’s essay) became large-scale undertakings situated in learned academies and hospitals.

When taken together, the essays in the ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’ special issue collectively argue that ‘experimental thinking’ played a crucial role in learned assessments of medicine and drugs throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period. From the time of Galen, drug testing was structured and evidence-based with an aim to produce transferable results. For us, this fascinating and multifaceted story of premodern drug testing enriches and extends current histories of experimentation and we hope that our explorations into topic will inspire others to join us too!

Further Reading and Acknowledgements:

This post is a very condensed version of Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin’s ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures: Experiment and Medicine in Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 91 (2017), 157-182. The full version of the article is available here. The entire special issue is available here.

The ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’ project was funded by the Max Planck Society as part of the Minerva Research Group’s ‘Reading and Writing Nature in Early Modern Europe’.  We also extend our grateful thanks to all the participants of the 2014 workshop, the editors of the BHM and the anonymous reviewers of the articles in this special issue.


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