All posts by Elaine Leong

Tales from the Archives: Testing Drugs and Trying Cures Workshop Summary

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

Over the next few weeks, The Recipes Project will feature a selection of case studies from the current issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine on “‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures”. This special issue grew out of a 2014 workshop held at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. We were very lucky to have two then graduate students Ashley Buchanan and Tillman Taape, join us for and grateful that they took the time to pen the post below. It seems fitting to begin this month on testing drugs and trying cures with a revisit to their post. Elaine (editor).


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.

Consumers of the Exotic: summary of a workshop in Cambridge, April 5-6, 2017

By Emma Spary and Justin Rivest

By Reede tot Drakestein, Hendrik van,1637?-1691 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The project “Selling the Exotic in Paris and Versailles, 1670-1730”, running in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, and funded by Leverhulme Research Grant 2014-289, held its planned workshop in April this year. Its theme, “Consumers of the Exotic: European commerce and the consumption of exotic materia medica, 1670-1730”, brought together a group of international scholars working on these questions in a broad variety of European contexts.

Our goal at the workshop was to produce a comparative picture of the ways in which exotic plant materials were processed, bought and consumed in Europe. Why did European consumers buy—and more significantly ingest—exotic plant materials? What did exoticism mean to them? While recent work has focused on colonial bioprospecting and the appropriation of indigenous knowledge, our aim was to investigate demand within Europe itself, exploring divergences and similarities across contexts. The choice of a restricted timespan—the decades around 1700—provided a baseline for comparison of drug production, sales and consumption in different cultures. Alexandra Cook (University of Hong Kong) kicked off the programme with a study of a proprietary drug, Garcin’s “Maduran pills”, sold around Europe in the early eighteenth century by an entrepreneur whose Protestant faith led to a complex intellectual and commercial itinerary. Cook argued that exotic ingredients were not necessarily a selling point for eighteenth-century patients. Harun Küçük (University of Pennsylvania) provoked us to think about the complexity of defining the exotic, and the importance of a multi-perspectival view of the history of drugs: Ottoman healers associated New World exotica like cinchona bark and ipecacuanha root with French medicine, since these substances often reached them via French commercial and intellectual networks. Continuing the global theme, Samir Boumediene explored the place of drugs in the missionary activities of the Society of Jesus. The decades around 1700 represented a decline in the relative importance of Jesuits in the global drug trade, as new players came to disrupt their initial privileged position.

Šebestián Kroupa (University of Cambridge) offered a counterpoint to the workshop’s focus on European consumption by exploring the supply of European drugs to transplanted European populations—Manila in the Philippines. European drugs were in fact imported in large volumes to this “exotic” locale; little attention was paid to the pursuit of plant substances that might be commodified in the metropole, an exception being the Saint Ignatius bean. Victoria Pickering explored the diverse trajectories, contacts, and exchanges that were necessary to assemble the massive collection of exotic plant substances of Sir Hans Sloane.

Moving to early modern Russia, Clare Griffin suggested that its unique geographical connections—in the form of a land route between Europe and the Far East—led commentators to represent distant substances and peoples as subject to incorporation into the Empire, rather than “exotic” in the sense of “foreign”, as the case of rhubarb showed. Paula De Vos concluded the first day with an account of Palacios’ prominent 1706 pharmacopoeia. Early modern Western pharmacy was indebted, for its materia medica, to the Indo-Mediterranean world rather than the continent of Europe. The slow appropriation of new drugs spread outwards from this Indo-Mediterranean core to the Silk Roads, the Indian Ocean, and eventually the Atlantic world.

On day 2, Laia Portet explored the architecture of exoticism in printed French materia medica. Where familiar European plants tended to be classified alphabetically, unfamiliar exotics were classified by parts (roots, barks, leaves) since this was the form in which they entered the European marketplace. Emma Spary used a case history of an exotic aromatic, cinnamon, to point up the disjuncture between textual, material and empirical knowledge of drugs, a conundrum for medical experts, market regulators and individual consumers. Hjalmar Fors provocatively suggested that for early modern Europeans, “the exotic” primarily evoked traded material goods, including spices and drugs, rather than foreign peoples or distant geographies. Lack of knowledge about the places of origin of drugs was critical to a substance remaining “exotic” in European eyes.

Justin Rivest spoke of the encounter between political power, the emerging state and the large-scale administration of drugs in France, looking at how personal trialling of drugs by successive ministers of war led to a centrally administered programme of dispensing exotic drugs like tobacco, quinquina and ipecacuanha to French troops. In a very different take on the end-user, Wouter Klein introduced us to the uses of print culture as a research tool for relating newspaper advertising and ships’ cargoes of drugs in the Dutch republic after 1700.

Several common themes emerged from the papers. It seemed that “colonial bioprospecting” had its limits as a way of understanding European engagement with non-European materia medica. Most substances discussed did not reach Europe thanks to state intervention, but rather were trafficked by a heterogenous set of actors: missionaries, trading company officials, entrepreneurial merchants and court physicians. Many papers also showed that “exoticism” was not necessarily inherently desirable. A drug’s value was established through consensus-building over time. Furthermore, “exoticism” was a relative, context-specific category, subject to change, not solely a feature of geographic origin, or of a core-periphery relation between European metropoles and their colonies. The papers demonstrated that exoticism was also, perhaps largely, a product of degrees of familiarity and unfamiliarity, which varied widely across different European contexts. In sum, rather than being inherently valuable objects of appropriation, exotic drugs were socially constructed goods.

Reconstructing Recipes? : Day 7 of “What is a Recipe?”

By Amanda Herbert and Elaine Leong

Here at the Recipes Project virtual conversation Day 7, reconstruction has also emerged as a main theme.  What does “reconstruction” entail?  Is it following directions laid out by someone long-dead?  Or is it breaking down a past concept or culture according to our own systems, standards, and logics?  As our participants in Day 7 proved, reconstruction can mean many things.

Siobhan Carlson (@Spuddenly_Farm) continues to monitor her potatoes (see here and here). Working in parallel, Hillary Nunn (@HillaryNunn )  and Whitney Thompson (@klahom) explored eggs and the making of orange pudding. Prompting them to ask “What is an egg?” and “What is pudding?”. Elsewhere, Katherine Allen (@KAllen622 ) tried her hand at making lip salve and seed cake from an 18th century recipe book now in the Warwickshire Record Office. Katherine’s blog post highlights the difficulty and ease (via Amazon) of sourcing ingredients. Though we might be talking about potatoes, eggs or beeswax, one clear theme emerges from these #recipesconf about reconstruction – the difficulty in identifying precisely what our historical actors mean when they name an ingredient and in pinpointing their modern equivalents. Hillary and Whitney’s parallel experiment was particularly enlightening as the two versions of the pudding look somewhat different but still pretty appealing! 

#recipesconf aside, twitter has been filled with recipe reconstructions lately. The @makingknowing and @artechne projects have both taken advantage of the summer breaks to reconstruct recipes for all kinds of art processes from casting, soldering, melting to the production of colours like azurite. So, if you’re interested in reconstructing historical recipes, you’re in good company and there are plenty of resources out there!

Approaching “reconstruction” from a slightly different angle, Mark Sundaram (@alliterative) and Aven McMaster (@avensarah) reconstruct the history and etymology of the word “recipe” in their podcast, The Endless Knot.  If you’ve ever wondered how “recipe” was used in the ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern worlds — or even where we get the “Rx” symbol used for prescriptions, chemists, and drug stores! — then Mark and Aven’s exploration of words, history, and meaning offers some revealing insights.

The Instagram photo essay produced by Paveen Puneet and Priyanki S. Bishnoi explored “reconstruction” in the sense of breaking down and documenting the architecture, scaffolding, and framing of space and place.  Puneet and Bishnoi’s gorgeous images of cooking sites – both indoors and outdoors – in rural north India reveal that it is critical to explore the constructions which surround recipe activities.  You can find their essay, “A Pinch of This and a Handful of That: Food and Recipes in Kitchens of Rural North India” on Instagram @ppp_cookingchronicles

Courtesy of Paveen Puneet and Priyanki S. Bishnoi, on Instagram @ppp_cookingchronicles.
Courtesy of Paveen Puneet and Priyanki S. Bishnoi, on Instagram @ppp_cookingchronicles.

A more metaphorical reconstruction involves delving deep into one’s own family recipe collection to examine themes of cultural exchange of foodways, commercial functions of recipes, and memes, cliche, and memory. Will Burdette launched his new project, Food Moves, in which he’ll be exploring and reconstructing the family rolodex of recipes digitally! His video discussion is an intriguing counterpoint to Puneet and Bishnoi’s project. Where their interviewees dismissed the importance of written recipes as fuel for the fire, Burdette considers commercial recipes written on the side of boxes–as decoration, marketing… and family tradition. As @AvenSarah responded on Twitter:

Finally, we “reconstructed” the archives of several libraries and special collections with a series of tweets from The College of Physicians in Philadelphia (@CPPHistMedLib), the Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives (@CUSpecialColls), the University of Glasgow Archives and Special Collections (@UofGlasgowASC) and the Thomas Fisher Library (@FisherLibrary).  All four institutions offered images and descriptions of images from their collections, focusing particularly on medical recipes, scientific recipes, and recipes revealing the cultures of composition and writing–specifically, of ink.

Of course, reconstruction has been a strong theme throughout the virtual conversation and indeed on our blog (and elsewhere–the researchers at The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, for example, have been doing replications for years now, see videos here). All this talk about reconstruction reminded us of our conversations on Day 1 of the virtual conversation (Storify here), where Thijs Hagendijk’s tweeted on how to make pearls from fish eyes and @rare_cooking‘s  discussed her work on Cooking the Archive, comparing the blog to a laboratory notebook open to public. We encourage you to start your own notebook on reconstructing historical recipes and share it with us on twitter, blogs, instagram and more.

It’s been a great day at #recipesconf. Please join us again on July 3 for Day 8 of “What is a recipe?”  The Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and  Medicine at the University of Minnesota (@umnbiomedliband the Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives  (@CUSpecialColls ) will continue to bring us gems in their collections. See you very soon!

Recipes as a Connecting Thread: Reflections on Day 4

By Amanda Herbert and Elaine Leong

Day Four represented the best of what our “What Is A Recipe” digital conversation has come to represent.  Our contributors joined the #recipesconf conversation in a wide range of media: blog posts, podcasts, YouTube videos, Instagram photo essays, and Tweetstorms.  As our discussion ranged across platforms and topics, we were reminded that recipes act as a connecting thread, bringing together helpful research and insights that help us to understand the past from many perspectives, disciplines, and time periods.

We had some new recipe recreations today, via Simon Walker and Siobhan Clark.  Both of these contributors reminded us – in keeping with Marissa Nicosia’s post on early modern chocolate – that recipe recreation helps us to see a past which is available yet not necessarily accessible.

Siobhan Clark’s Spuddenly Farming experiment continued as Siobhan began to divide and cut potatoes that had been grown according to eighteenth-century farming methods.  This was not straightforward, as the potatoes came in a variety of sizes and each had very different numbers of eyes.  What started as a math puzzle quickly became an exercise in aesthetics.

But Simon Walker’s brilliant YouTube tutorial on how to make WWI Lemon Hardtack Pudding reminded us that aesthetics are sometimes lost in translation. As Simon shared, soldiers in WWI were expected to eat 4,500 calories per day, approximately 500 of which were devoted to puddings — or, as the soldiers called them, “duff.” (For another RP post on wartime duff, see Jessica Eichlin’s post on Apple Duff in the American Civil War.)

The most important things about these dishes were probably their characters (filling) as well as their contents (sugar) rather than their visual or textural appeal. Puddings made out of things like bacon grease, sugar, and rehydrated hardtack might seem today to be only marginally edible — but they were nonetheless critical to WWI soldiers’ morale and their sense of normalcy.  Both Siobhan’s and Simon’s recreations might not allow a replica of past experience, but they do offer unexpected and useful insights into things like the material conditions of labor, the impact of tradition and culture, or the importance of logistics, supply, and trade.

Two other contributors, Louise Cilliers and Véronique Ginouvès, offered blog posts.  Cilliers discussed remedies to treat breast engorgement in the ancient world, and Ginouvès reflected on her experiments with podcasting at the sound archives at the MMSH.  Cilliers shared insights about a North African doctor, Theodorus Priscianus, who was a student of the famous Carthaginian physician, Vindicianus (late 4thcentury CE).  Priscianus’ cures for postpartum women revealed that the physician was attuned to and respectful of ancient women’s own systems of knowledge and their experiences.

Meanwhile Ginouvès wrote about the ways that  she her team have approached a series called “La Recette Du Mois,” uncovering recollections of recipes in the MMSH Sound Archive Center’s more than 8,000 hours of sound archives (6,000 of which have been digitized, and  3,000 of which are directly accessible online).  Although Cilliers’ and Ginouvès’ topics vary widely in terms of time period and topic, both offered the opportunity to reflect on the important work that recipes do in making the past seem relevant, approachable, and accessible.

This was a point forcefully born out by Lisa Smith’s tweetstorm about her innovative undergraduate teaching with recipes. Smith’s tweets directed readers to blog posts and citizen transcription projects completed by her students at the University of Essex as part of their goal to consider ‘What is a Recipe?’. For more, go here.

Finally, joining the conversation from Australia, Marguerite Johnson shared her analysis of beauty recipes from Ovid’s Medicamina Faciei Femineae via a podcast and storify.  Ovid, Marguerite tell us, offered his readers not recipes for cosmetics (make-up and such) but rather ‘cosmeceuticals’, substances which could be used to augment natural beauty. Here, we again see recipes as a connecting thread. Not only were there crossovers in the ingredients, techniques and equipment used between medical, culinary and cosmeceutical production but many of the ingredients recommended by Ovid, such as honey and egg,  are still in use today in our more natural face creams. Inspired by Marguerite (and Ovid, of course), we now view those eggs sitting our kitchens with new intentions! Who knows, next week, you might see us sporting smooth, glowing complexions! And that’s only one of the reasons why we appreciate #recipesconf.

… And in case you missed it, a Storify of Day 3 by Tallulah Maait Pepperell is available here.