Category Archives: Knowledge Transmission

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.

The Ichthyologist’s Garden

By Didi van Trijp  and Robbert Striekwold

On a gloriously sunny day in May we rang the doorbell of ichthyologist Martien van Oijen’s home in Leiden for a rather peculiar project. Even though the original plan had been to carry it out in a laboratory setting, on account of the beautiful weather we all agreed to move the project outside. In his garden, Martien had set up a table on which had been placed an array of equipment for dissection together with some specimens of red seabream that he had bought at the fish market that morning. The reason for all this? The replication of an eighteenth-century recipe for preserving fish skins.

The freshly bought breams. All images courtesy of the authors.
The freshly bought breams. All images courtesy of the authors.

This method was developed by Johan Frederic Gronovius (1690–1762), a physician and botanist based in Leiden. He boasted an extensive cabinet with all sorts of naturalia ordered according to the Linnaean system. In his quest for collecting specimens he developed a method for drying and compressing fish skins that would allow one to glue them to the pages of a book – much like dried plants in a herbarium. He described this method in a letter to Peter Collinson, who read it at a meeting of the Royal Society and had it published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1742.[1] Compared to other ways of preserving fishes Gronovius’ method was quite easy and affordable, as few materials were needed. The only requirements were a pair of scissors, wooden plates, a linen cloth, ‘minikin pins’, and cartridge paper. Thus, according to Gronovius, “in the space of 24 hours, the fish is prepared.”

We set out to replicate Gronovius’ method step by step, carefully documenting each act with photographs and taking extensive notes along the way.[2] The first order of business was to cut the fish open with a pair of scissors, while making sure that the fins were not accidentally destroyed.

Cutting the fish open. All images courtesy of the authors.
Cutting the fish open. All images courtesy of the authors.

Then most of its right half and all of the intestines were removed, which resulted in a rather gruesome sight.

Completely dissected. All images courtesy of the authors.
Completely dissected. All images courtesy of the authors.

Then we washed the left half and patted it dry with a linen cloth. After spreading the fins with pins, we exposed the half fish to the sun so that it could dry further (in the absence of sun, Gronovius recommended exposing it to the hearth).

Spreading the fins. All images courtesy of the authors.
Spreading the fins. All images courtesy of the authors.

We noticed fairly soon that some of the steps were not entirely clear to us. For one, what to do about the impressive swarm of flies that instantly flocked to the carcass once it was laid out to dry?

Swarming flies. All images courtesy of the authors.
Swarming flies. All images courtesy of the authors.

Most importantly, although Gronovius said the skin could be separated from the flesh “with very little trouble” after the drying step, it took considerable effort to do so. This may have to do with the fact that some of the steps are described in a somewhat ambiguous manner. We interpreted the step telling us the “back-bones are then to be cut asunder” to mean that the backbone should be cut but not removed.

Drying the inside of the fish. All images courtesy of the authors.
Drying the inside of the fish. All images courtesy of the authors.

After drying, however, these bones were very hard to remove, so we now think the entire backbone should be discarded before the drying step. Subsequent attempts with new specimens should shed more light on these issues.

The replication of this method is proving to be very insightful by giving us first-hand experience with a pertinent aspect of our respective projects: the preservation of fish specimens so that they could be collected, circulated, stored and classified. Fishes were notoriously difficult to preserve, losing their shapes, colours, textures, and often spoiling despite the collector’s best efforts to prevent these processes. So far, Gronovius’ method has indeed proven to be very quick and remarkably doable, and it appears to preserve the fish in very good shape, although we are not quite done with it yet.

After removing the dried flesh, the skin was placed between paper and left under a press overnight.

Pressing of fish skin between paper. All images courtesy of the authors.
Pressing of fish skin between paper. All images courtesy of the authors.

The next morning an elegantly flattened half-fish came out that would have done Gronovius proud.

Result (sans varnish). All images courtesy of the authors.
Result (sans varnish). All images courtesy of the authors.

Unfortunately, it did not smell quite as good as it looked. Our next step will be to use the recipe for a particular varnish that has been written up by Gronovius in a letter to one of his correspondents after having received a number of rotting fish skins. If all goes well, this should remedy the stench of the specimen – now safely stored in the freezer awaiting further treatment – and keep it in its current unspoilt state for many decades.


J.F. Gronovius, ‘A Method of preparing Specimens of Fish, by drying their Skins, as practised by John Frid. Gronovius M.D. in Leyden’ in Philosophical Transactions 42 (1742) 57-58.

[2] Robbert did the dissecting, Didi the documentation.

Day 3: What is a Recipe?

M. Darly, The Macrony Shoe Maker, 1775. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Come… make yourself comfy! Welcome to the third event day for our ‘What is a Recipe?’ Virtual Conversation. We’re looking forward to a a busy day ahead.

There are a few things to check out that happened yesterday. Emily Contois has a wonderful post on ‘Listening to the Voices in Historic Cookbooks‘, which discusses a recent weeklong recipes workshop she attended, but it also has a number of crossover themes with our ongoing conversation for ‘What is a Recipe?’. Hillary Nunn and Whitney Thompson had a Twitter bake-off of a seventeenth-century recipe; you can follow their experiment under #recipesconf. And Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives shared some recipe-related highlights from their collection (@CUSpecialColls).

Today, we’ll be hearing from…

If you want to pick up some themes from Day 2, check over here for Laurence Totelin’s helpful summary and Tallulah Maait Pepperell’s Storify.

UPDATE (June 19, 2017): A Storify of Day 3 by Tallulah is available over here.