Category Archives: Series: Chemicals

A rose is a rose is a rose… but how does it smell?

By Galina Shyndriayeva as part of the Perfume Series

Questions of words and the meanings they convey are critical for poetry and literature, but they are just as important in the poetry of the senses. While chemical knowledge seems to have little to do with poetic concerns, European chemistry at the turn of the twentieth century, around the time of Gertrude Stein’s famous pronunciation that “a rose is a rose is a rose”, called into question what a rose really was.

The preoccupation of many organic chemists at the time was to analyze and identify discrete compounds which were responsible for a specific function in the organic matter, such as providing the sensation of a grassy scent. For example, lavender essential oil was analyzed into components which were responsible for the lavender scent. Some of these compounds could sometimes be isolated from materials cheaper than lavender oil and used as an ingredient in perfumes to impart some smidgen of lavender scent.

Evaluating otto of rose at Kazanlik, Bulgaria, major exporter of roses, ca. 1906. From William Le Queux, An observer in the Near East (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Roses proved to have a particularly thorny (of course) scent to analyze. Chemists, mainly in France and Germany, published many articles claiming to have thoroughly identified the key components of rose oil (known as rose otto, the product of two sequential distillation steps), such as the alcohols citronellol, geraniol, rhodinol and others. But what was rhodinol to one group of chemists was not recognized as rhodinol to another; the second group claimed rhodinol was just an unrefined mixture of other components and judged the first group of chemists for sloppy technique. This situation was due to the delicate and laborious procedures of chemical analysis of the time. Adding to the complexity was the fact that oil from even the same cultivar of rose but grown in different conditions (altitude, rainfall, temperature, etc.) could contain different quantities of compounds. Setting a standard to demarcate a pure rose oil according to its constituents was therefore a matter of contention; what could be a rose in Germany was not a rose in France.

Yet the problem of identifying a rose oil as rose oil was not limited to satisfactorily labelling its components in a way agreed to by all the chemists. Profits from manufacturing rose oil could of course be stretched by adulterating the oil and a chemical understanding of the oil helped to choose more sophisticated adulterants. Verifying by chemical analysis whether the oil one just bought was genuine was as laborious a process. For example, a common adulterant was palmarosa oil, the major component of which was the alcohol geraniol, which was not only also present in rose oil, but varied in quantity depending on cultivation conditions. All these sophistication efforts ensured that the skilled ‘nose’, rather than chemical tests, would often remain the most trusted arbiter of a real rose.1

Rosa x damascena, principal Bulgarian hybrid for use in perfumes. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Lucia Condac / CC BY 3.0.

What about the perfumers? One option was just to identify a favorite, trusted supplier of roses and buy otto of rose, with all its complex mixtures of compounds still somewhat mysterious, only from them. A cheaper option was to replicate the rose scent without using roses at all, possible by the 1920s with a greater range of compounds being manufactured commercially. One recipe gives 80% geraniol and small proportions of other compounds, such as citronellol and phenyl ethyl alcohol. Perfumers could use this product, manufactured by a German fragrance and essential oil supplier called Schimmel, or use something similar but add a little ‘real rose’ to ground the imitation.2 This imitation option called into question what skills were more important for a talented perfumer – to replicate a rose scent skillfully using lesser ingredients, or to properly identify a high quality ‘real’ rose oil? A British perfumer for Yardley, William Poucher, for example, was evidently proud of his skills in both these activities, but what he boasted of most in his book was his ability to identify correctly the origins of different rose oils only by scent: “To the trained specialists, however, the merest graduation of odour is appreciable, and an expert florist will name the variety of rose even in the dark” (italics original).3 And these deliberations do not even take into question which perfume the consumer would identify as a rose scent!

The scent of a rose then was highly malleable, due to both intentional as well as fraudulent artistry, as well as to the difficulty of identifying its components, and defining it was a contentious process.

1. Michael Palairet, “Primary production in a market for luxury: the rose-oil trade of Bulgaria, 1771-1941,” Journal of European Economic History 28, 3 (1999): 564-566.

2. Michael Palairet, “Primary production in a market for luxury: the rose-oil trade of Bulgaria, 1771-1941,” Journal of European Economic History 28, 3 (1999), 569.

3. William A. Poucher, Perfumes, cosmetics and soaps: With especial reference to synthetics, vol. 2 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1932), 206.

Dyeing to Be Cured

By Ashley Buchanan

Slipped within Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe collection is a small bound pamphlet that instructs the user how to tint or dye white marble various colors. In just sixteen pages, the unknown author details the ingredients, processes, and necessary apparatuses needed to create three different reds, two blues, three yellows, three greens, and even fake the signature black or grey veining of “pavonazzo” marble. While the secret to tinting natural looking marble was certainly valuable artisanal knowledge, it is the last three pages of the booklet that are particularly interesting. Without explanation, the pamphlet suddenly shifts topics and details “a particular secret for a styptic water that quickly stops bleeding wounds and torn guts.” The descriptive title continues by suggesting that you can “try it on a rooster by piercing its head with a sharp needle, and the rooster will heal in fifteen minutes.”

Title page of the pamphlet

The first step of the recipe instructs to dissolve a quarter of an ounce of rock alum in one ounce of “acqua rosa” (rose water), which was then added to a quart of “allume bruciato,” or calcined aluminum sulfate. This mixture was then placed in a “digestione,” which was an alchemical apparatus for distillation that dissolved a body in water or alcohol over mild heat. The recipe calls for the mixture to be heated for an hour and until clear. The second step in the recipe is to dissolve a quarter of an ounce of lead acetate in an ounce of distilled vinegar with one forth of pulverized candied sugar. For the third step, a fourth of pulverized copper sulfate from Cyprus is added to an ounce of “acqua di piantagine.” The fourth step calls for calcined red, or Roman vitriol (sulphuric acid) to be boiled with two ounces of urine from a healthy creature. The fifth and final step is to combine an ounce of strong lime into an eight of sublimated and pulverized mercury, which is “digested” to a clear heat for an hour. Once these five steps are completed, everything is to be mixed together in a flask for sublimation and to “digest” for twelve hours.

When I first came across this recipe I was unsure what to make of it, and its inclusion in a pamphlet dedicated to the act of tinting marble perplexed me. But as it turned out, this funny little pamphlet held the key to better understanding Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe collection as a whole. Recipes collected by women are traditionally viewed as domestic manuals used to safeguard the health of the home and treat commonplace illnesses. In general, and as previously discussed here on the Recipes Project, recipes were “repositories for useful knowledge” and share a desired goal to unlock nature’s secrets.[1] In the case of Anna Maria Luisa, however, useful knowledge extended beyond the preparation of simples and household medicines. Her recipe collection reveals an interest in collecting and amassing experiential alchemical knowledge. The creation of styptic water used the same ingredients, apparatuses, and alchemical processes detailed and drawn in the recipes for marble dyes that preceded it.

Detailed illustration showing how to set up the necessary alchemical apparatuses to create the marble dyes and styptic water.

In addition to highlighting one Princess’s interest in alchemy, this pamphlet also speaks to two important issues when studying early modern recipes from a modern perspective. First, science, medicine, and technology at the late Medici court existed in a world in which our modern categories of knowledge simply did not apply. In eighteenth century Florence, artisanal practices, science (or natural history), and medicine were closely connected thanks to alchemy. For the late Medici court, alchemy was not associated with the mysterious or the occult. Alchemy was an applied science that used experimental activities to investigate and transform nature. These practices produced experimental activities in metallurgy, refining salts, producing dyes and pigments, the manufacturing of man-made gemstones and stones, glass and ceramics, and the creation of chemical medicines. Each of these seemingly disparate pursuits were united by process rather than the specific product produced.

This early modern emphasis on process over product brings me to the second issue concerning the studying early modern recipes. While recipes are certainly important historical objects, they are often closely associated with or celebrated for the product they produce. This emphasis on product over process, however, can belie the true value of many recipes. As is in the case of the styptic water. Was Anna Maria Luisa interested in tinting marble or was she interested in better understanding complex alchemical processes that could transform nature and the human body? Thanks to this pamphlet, I now argue the latter.


[1] I am borrowing a working definition of early modern recipes from the Recipes Project post, “What is a Recipe?”

Burnt Toast, Medicine and Identity in (Early Modern?) England

by Giovanni Pozzetti

Last Monday the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK launched the ‘go for gold’ campaign to promote awareness in the kitchen when cooking foods at high temperatures. Results of a study conducted on mice showed how foods with a high content of acrylamide can be related to cancer. Acrylamide is a chemical that is generated in foods exposed for long time at high temperatures. However, acrylamide is also responsible for turning foods from their original colour to different shades of gold, brown, dark-brown and black. Hence the title of the FSA campaign – ‘go for gold’. The more overcooked a food is, the highest its acrylamide content. Two of the major ingredients at risk are bread and potatoes, mostly because they are particularly tasty when very well roasted, and because acrylamide is heavily present in starchy foods. Given the love that Brits have for these ingredients, the news was not well welcomed by the British public (see the comment section of this article).

Toast and margarine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Medical anxieties of overcooking bread, or food in general, were very common in the pre-modern period as well. Today’s ‘go for gold’ campaign attempts to establish a rule for cooking that is based on shadowy visual indications rather than on specific and replicable instructions, and this is not something new. In fact, what ‘gold’ means is quite blurry and remains very much open to interpretation. Surprisingly, the FSA did not provide any visual guide to follow in order to reach the healthiest cooking point. Acrylamide develops in foods heated to temperatures above 120 C°; however, these kinds of temperatures are not as easy to monitor at home as in professional kitchens. This week’s furor over burnt toast and the FSA’s attitude in offering medical advice to laymen has particularly interested me. As an early modern historian working on how medical knowledge and food consumption crossed paths in the household (England and Italy, 1500-1650), I engage a lot with health regimens and cookery books.

Health regimens were supposed to be manuals of good health for non-specialists and were written in vernacular. The authors wrote instructions that noticeably recall FSA’s ‘go for gold’. For example, in the Castel of Helth (1534), a best seller published at least 14 times between 1534 and 1610, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490? – 1546), diplomat and scholar, offered instructions to make the most ‘wholesome bread’. The dough had to rise sufficiently and it had to be ‘moderately baked’.[1] Clearly, Elyot knew nothing about acrylamide. He was much more worried about the humoral imbalance that either overcooked or undercooked bread brought to the body. Overcooked bread brought hotness, and would have dried up the body. Conversely, eating undercooked bread made the complexion of the person lean towards a cold and moist humoral (im)balance.

Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Galenic and Hippocratic corpus of medical knowledge, based on the humoral theory, was the pillar on which early modern medicine was based upon. The body was in good health when the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) were balanced, defining so the four complexions of the body (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic respectively). The humors were constantly altered by food, where each ingredient was either cold or hot, and dry or moist. A different science from today altogether, but science nonetheless. Elyot and other early modern authors wrote different things for different reasons but their attitude towards cooking times and procedures is the same adopted by the FSA to engage with a public that knows more of bread and potatoes than medicine.

The ‘go for gold’ campaign made the news – it was even discussed  on Good Morning Britain and the NHS has endorsed the advice. The campaign has also triggered a powerful and intense public reaction. Many didn’t like it. On the website of The Telegraph newspaper, the comment section quickly filled up with bitter reactions and sceptical criticisms. Some questioned the scientific findings while others protested against conducting experiments on animals to reach a human-related conclusion. However, one of the most common arguments was that this scientific recommendation, along with this kind of scientific research, should not be taken too seriously because nothing bad ever came out of well roasted potatoes and dark-brown toasts. People felt offended – for lack of a better word – because someone told them to avoid a food and a specific cooking procedure that for Brits are vital and deeply embedded in their modern food traditions. However, both health regimens from the sixteenth century, which carried a tradition much older than them, and today’s medical advice on food share this dependence on the cook’s interpretation and, more important, personal will. Perhaps, the vagueness embedded in the need to simplify the scientific notion is the reason behind its rejection in the first place. It’s much easier to go for a dark brown, tasty and deliciously over-toasted slice of bread, and accepting the damage that this choice brings, rather than having to work out the perfectly healthy cooking point and leaving so taste and traditions behind.

[1] Thomas Elyot Sir, The Castel of Helth (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1539), fol. D5r.


Giovanni Pozzetti is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds (UK). His research looks at the reception and assimilation of Galenic medicine in the early modern household between Italy and England.

Of Quacks and Caustics

By Samantha Sandassie

Interior of Wellcome library, shelves in Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Interior of Wellcome library, shelves in
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

In 1694, surgeon William Cowper and other members of the Royal Society gathered to test a Vulnerary Powder peddled by an apothecary named John Colbatch.  The powder, Colbatch argued, was a styptic that staunched the flow of blood and allowed wounds to heal much faster.

Given the growing importance of military action in the period, with the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674) and the Nine Years’ War (1689-1697), a medicine that could help out on the battlefield was invaluable.  Practitioners were moving away from cauterizing wounds with heated instruments to stop blood loss and increasingly replacing it with tourniquets in combination with powders and liquids that could staunch wounds and accelerate the healing process. William Clowes, for example, used a styptic powder whose ingredients he guarded fiercely while Richard Wiseman used successfully the so-called “Royal Stiptick Water.”

Colbatch claimed that he did numerous animal experiments that proved his powder’s efficacy.  As he stated, “I began to make Experiments upon Dogs and other Animals, Wounding them in the most desperate manner I could contrive; and in about a Hundred Experiments that I made, I had not above five that miscarried.”[1]

London surgeons felt this too good to be true and responded with everything from polite disbelief to outright scorn.  Did Colbatch, a mere apothecary, stumble upon a revolutionary new method of treating wounds?  Or was he yet another quack on the London landscape?

William Cowper. Source: wikicommons
William Cowper. Source: wikicommons

Cowper, a noted surgeon and anatomist, decided to replicate Colbatch’s experiments to test the powder himself. In a letter published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, he noted: “THE Report of Wonderful Cures wrought by Mr. Colbatch’s Styptick Pouder, so entertained the Expectations of divers Persons, that amongst others I thought my self obliged to obtain some convincing Proofs of its Operations.”[2]

To begin, Cowper experimented on two dogs, applying Colbatch’s Vulnerary Powder to their wounds. In both cases, the dogs recovered suitably and Cowper and his colleagues were excited, their hopes raised that Colbatch had, indeed, developed a powder that could help save lives.

Keeping in mind the successful animal experiments, Cowper and his colleagues made their way to London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and applied the powder to two amputation stumps. First, that of a man who had his arm amputated above the elbow and second, that of a young teenage boy who had his leg amputated below the knee.

In both cases, Colbatch’s powder proved ineffective. A disappointed Cowper prepared his report on the unsuccessful experiment and sent it to the Royal Society. Cowper’s report in the Phil. Trans. hid nothing. Colbatch’s supposedly mild styptic powder put both patients in “extravagant pains” and upon removing the styptic and bandages, the amputation site on both patients looked as if they had been cauterized. The observers were duly horrified; Colbatch’s styptic, its function finally witnessed, was deemed a failure while Colbatch’s claims were dismissed as lies.[3]

Colbatch was furious and decried Cowper’s assessment. Indeed, as he wrote later, the experiment’s outcome must have been fabricated by jealous detractors.[4]

L0064675 Titlepage: Novum lumen chirurgicum Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Titlepage: 'Novum lumen chirurgicum: OR, A New Light of Chirurgery' 1699 A collection of tracts, chirurgical and medical, viz. I. A new light of chirurgery; or a discovery of a more safe, and speedy way of curing wounds ... II. The new light of chirurgery vindicated ... III. A physico-medical essay concerning alkaly and acid ... IV. Further considerations concerning alkaly and acid ... V. A treatise of the gout ... VI. The doctrine of acids in the cure of diseases further asserted ... VII. A relation of a ... cure of a person bitten by a viper ... / John Colbatch Published: 1699. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Titlepage: Novum lumen chirurgicum
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Writing in 1699, Colbatch claimed that he had visited the patients the day after the experiment was performed and found them both well and happy with the treatment. As he wrote, “before I was capable of speaking to him [the adult male patient], he rose up in his Bed, and prayed most heartily for me, telling me he believed no man, that ever had an Arm cut off, was so well as he.”[5]

And last, to prove that the powder really was caustic, W.W. had it tested by chymists only to discover that it consisted primarily of three inexpensive and easily obtained ingredients: Dantzic vitriol of copper (a sulfate), sugar of lead for added flavour, and a bit of dragon’s blood to dye it red.[6]

The Dantzic vitriol was likely copper sulfate, a green caustic powder consisting of copper and small amounts of iron that was beaten until it turned white.  Sugar of lead or lead acetate is a toxic water soluble compound that was historically used as a sweetener and later medically as an astringent.  Dragon’s blood, a plant-based resin, was used as a wound coagulant historically but may have been added to the recipe for aesthetic purposes.

Taken together, these ingredients could not have had the almost miraculous wound-healing effect described by its inventor. Rather, as W.W. concluded “the best Way of applying of it [the Vulnerary Powder] will easily appear to be to throw it into some nasty Puddle of Water; which by its Filth, is excused from the use of Man and Beast.”[7]

Colbatch had numerous surgeons and physicians against him.  Repeated experiments and publications questioned his medical theories and cures.  Indeed, W.W. went so far as to analyze and critique almost every cure Colbatch wrote about. Yet, none of this could ruin Colbatch’s reputation once and for all because the most important  people – the patients – were either not listening, not caring, or not believing. Despite being blacklisted by many a medical practitioner, the upstart apothecary from Worcestershire died Sir John Colbatch, a wealthy, knighted physician.

Bio: Samantha Sandassie is a historian of early modern medicine whose work focuses on surgery in seventeenth-century England.  She blogs over at Panacea and can be found on Twitter @medhistorian.

[1] John Colbatch, Novem Lumen Chirurgicum (London: printed for D. Brown, 1695), “To the Reader.”

[2] William Cowper, “An Account of some EXPERIMENTS lately made on Dogs,” Philosophical Transactions 18 (1694), 42.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Colbatch, Novum Lumen, “To the Reader.”

[5] Colbatch, A Collection of Tracts (London: printed for Dan. Brown, 1699), 70-71.

[6] Ibid., 61.

[7] Ibid., 63.