Medicinal Receipts Research Group History

And so it begins… The original flyer sent out in 2002-2003.


A new informal network for active researchers into historical medicinal receipts. The idea for this new network arose from discussions after a Wellcome seminar on ‘Women, household and family’ in the autumn of 2002. It was felt that such a group would have 2 key aims:

  1. To encourage contact and exchange of information between active researchers in the historical study of medicinal receipts
  2. To facilitate opportunities to discuss problems and issues and promote the scholarly study of medicinal receipts.

Those of us interested so far have been able to arrange several study meetings on specific topics in London in 2003. If you think you would like to be involved or could help in any way then please get in touch. Suggestions for topics for study meetings are also welcome!

If you would be interested in joining this group then please send your details by post or e-mail (ie name and contact details, current position and research activity, brief details of other research interests and publications). Only include details that you are willing to have circulated to others joining the group! A list of members will be circulated about twice yearly.

(Sent out by Anne Stobart)

Interior of a distilling laboratory with five people at work Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Interior of a distilling laboratory with five people at work. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Inaugural meeting of the Medicinal Receipts Research Group in May 2003

The inaugural meeting of the group was held on May 14th 2003, at the Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, London.

Members present: Anne Stobart, Carmen Caballero-Navas, Jo Castle, Katharine Knight, Nicky Wesson, Layinka Swinburne, Sarah Pennell; apologies were received from Elaine Leong and Sarah Hutton.

Anne Stobart distributed a list of current contacts. She welcomed members to the first meeting of the group. The aim was to build a network of people actively involved in research into medicinal receipts, rather than those merely interested. Application forms were handed round to offer to potential members. The meeting was a sequel to the series of seminars on domestic medicine held at the Institute in autumn 2002. Suggestions for future activities included further meetings and the organisation of an electronic discussion group.

An autumn meeting was in mind, possibly devoted to materia medica, provisionally to be held on Wednesday Oct. 29th. Jo Castle was prepared to talk on the sourcing of materia medica. Elaine Leong was setting up a conference to be held in Oxford in February 13th /14th 2004 with a provisional title ‘Lay Medical Culture.’. She had already invited a number of people to submit abstracts and was working on a programme.

Manuscript receipt collections – provenance, dating and related issues.

After the members had briefly introduced themselves, Dr Richard Aspin, Curator of Western Manuscripts at the Wellcome Library, described how he had become interested in the field of domestic medical receipts when he discovered a large but rarely used collection of domestic manuscripts in the original Wellcome collection. This neglect had changed and he now found that the collection was the most heavily used section of pre-1900 MSS and is only just surfacing as a source of medical research.

It is not clear what part such MSS played in family life. Were they intended as
practical guides, or memorabilia, relating to the library rather than the kitchen? Did they have a superstitious role- offering protection from the mere act of recording receipts? What was the purpose and life-span of such a book?

Richard illustrated these and other problems which he became aware of during his research into two MSS which he was able to attribute to the Okeover family. When the Wellcome Library acquired a splendid volume bound in vellum and written in a calligraphic hand, a mention of ‘Cos: Eliz. Okeover’ reminded him of another MS already in the collection inscribed ‘Elizabeth Okeover her book’. Further study showed that large sections of the smaller book were identical with parts of the larger volume. There were several ways in which the two volumes might be related, but certainly at one stage they had been in the same hands, as internal clues such as skipped pages, indicated that the sections had been copied from the larger volume. This was written in at least 8 distinct hands. Discussing the dating of different styles of writing, Richard described the study of handwriting as ‘not just an inexact science but not a science at all’. Unravelling the intriguing family connections was complicated by the frequent occurrence of the forename ‘Elizabeth’ but was illuminated by the study of the will of one Elizabeth which mentioned her receipt books.

He highlighted other points with examples from a number of other MSS, some with snippets of family history on the fly-leaf, and a variety of different bindings which perhaps reflected their status or function.

R. Aspin, “Who was Elizabeth Okeover?” Medical History 44 (2000): 531-540.

Woman with bellows. Michael Schrick, Von allen geprenten Wassern (Nürenberg: Jobst Gutknecht, 1530, title page). Image credit: National Library of Medicine.
Woman with bellows. Michael Schrick, Von allen geprenten Wassern (Nürenberg: Jobst Gutknecht, 1530, title page). Image credit: National Library of Medicine.

There was a lively discussion and opportunity to compare different observations and experiences. There were references to the part domestic medicine played in women’s lives, literacy, and the extent to which domestic MSS reflected changes in medical and dietetic theory. The social heterogeneity of the owners/authors was reflected in the terms used. Anne referred to the territorial defences of women engaged in lay medical practice, and possible reasons for the loss of confidence in the 18th Century. Clues to dating could be obtained from materia medica and apothecaries ingredients and could also be gained from the culinary content of the common type of MS containing both medicinal and culinary receipts. The documents should not be interpreted in isolation but when possible related to other material such as inventories, correspondence and accounts. Anne finished with further details of the autumn meeting,

The meeting closed at 3:30 pm with an opportunity to have a closer look at the examples brought down from the library.

Layinka Swinburne

The group met a few more times over the next year and by February 2005, the group and its activities had grown so much that  the minutes read as follows…

Meeting held in Oxford on Wed 23rd February 2005.

Present Elaine Leong, Nicky Wesson, Susan Francia, Anne Stobart, Caroline Bowden, Katherine Knight and several visitors (sorry I did not catch everyone’s name!).

(1) Apologies were received from Judith Spicksley and Layinka Swinburne.

(2) During the morning the group visited the Pharmacy and Drug Trade exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science.

(3) Our afternoon talk by Nicky Wesson was focussed on herbs and other remedies used in childbirth in the early modern period.

(4) Caroline Bowden brought some medical transcripts from the Cecil project for discussion and identification of items used.

(5) The responsibilities of various members of the group were agreed as follows:

Anne Stobart Chair, Membership list
Judith Spicksley Secretary
Caroline Bowden Treasurer, JISC list
Elaine Leong, Event Organiser
Susan Francia, Event Organiser
Nicky Wesson Publicity

Our aims would be to promote the historical study of medicinal and other receipts and in particular to advance the development of scholarly research relating to such receipts.

Thus we would

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: a view showing the pair of cedar. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
The Physic Garden, Chelsea: a view showing the pair of cedar. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
  • disseminate information relating to the historical study of medicinal receipts;
  • establish a data base containing details of the research, teaching and study interests of the members;
  • bring together in conference organisations and individuals active in research;
  • assist in promoting and carrying out research;
  • arrange meetings and seminars and training courses as appropriate;
  • support further developments such as Web site resources to assist research;
  • raise funds to support the above activities.

Anne agreed to investigate a means for holding small amounts of money such as needed to pay for room hire.

Next meeting at Chelsea Physic Garden, Wed 18th May 2005.

And at the same time, conference planning was underway…

List of things to do (just for May):

  • Urgent – May
  • Need a blurb describing the conference to people so people know what to gear their papers towards.
  • Remainder emails – to people invited
  • Chase up M re rooms, budget,
  • Decide on call for papers and if yes, send out call for papers
  • See whether we want to invite anyone else?
  • Follow-up emails to people who wanted more information.

But why stop with all that activity? Why not throw another workshop–Distilling Day–into the mix…

A study day to examine the practice and purpose of herbal distillation from Anglo-Norman to Victorian times, organised by the Medicinal Receipts Research Group.

The day will be conducted by Christina Stapley – writer, herbalist and lecturer, author of The Receipt Book of Lady Anne Blencowe 1694 (Heartease Books 2004), and Ian Pearce – historical researcher and interpreter.

Wednesday 26 April 10.00 – 3.30pm

Venue: Petersfield Physic Garden, 16 High St. Petersfield, Hampshire 01730 296060
10 minutes walk from Petersfield station (1 hr from Waterloo)

10.00am Introduction to understanding aromatic water receipts and the most important herbs used. This will be followed by plant identification within the physic garden.

11.00am Coffee break

11.30am Practical demonstrations of the use of aromatic waters within recipes from different centuries. Discussion of some specific compound water receipts leading to a practical demonstration of distillation with a copper alembic.

1.00 pm Lunch (details of availability: see below)

2.00pm Distillation continued. Discussion of bases used, examination of the possible synergistic relationship of herbs, and consistency within recipes. Traditional use eg cephalic, cordial and epidemic waters compared with modern applications. Results of the distillation demonstration.

3.30pm Finish. Tea.

Cost members £17 student members £15

Organiser, Nicky Wesson

By 2005, the group’s contact list had twenty-eight names. And the November 2005 meeting was more of a research workshop than an organisational meeting.

V0044644 Seven different types of sage (Salvia species): flowering st Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Seven different types of sage (Salvia species): flowering stems and leaves. Coloured lithograph. Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Seven different types of sage (Salvia species): flowering st
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

16 November 2005 Programme

1:30-1:35 Introduction (Caroline Bowden)

1:35-3:00 Presentations on Research Topics

‘Women of the Hartlib Circle’
Michelle Dimeo, University of Warwick

‘Proprietary medicines in England, 1640-1700’
David Haycock, The London School of Economics, University of London

‘Medical Recipe Collections in 17th century England: A Survey’
Elaine Leong, University of Leicester

‘Materia Medica in the Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’
Mark Nesbitt, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

‘Noblewomen and Medical Practice in Early Modern Germany’
Alisha Rankin, Trinity College, University of Cambridge

‘Seventeenth-century Domestic Medicine in South West England’
Anne Stobart, Middlesex University

3:00 – 3:30 Tea

3:30 – 4:30 Business Meeting (Anne Stobart)

In February 2006, the group laid out its aims again.

An apothecary or apprentice mixing medicine, from Brunschwig's Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images
An apothecary or apprentice mixing medicine, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

(a) The object of the Group shall be to promote the historical study of medicinal and other receipts and in particular to advance the development of scholarly research relating to such receipts.

(b) In furtherance of the said objects and ancillary thereto:

(i) to promote research into medicinal and other receipts of a historical nature;
(ii) to encourage contact between all persons interested in and concerned with medicinal receipts research;
(iii) to collate and disseminate information relating to the historical study of medicinal receipts;
(iv) to identify, review, advise and comment upon all issues pertaining to to the historical study of medicinal receipts;
(v) to establish a database containing details of the research, teaching and study interests of the members (as hereinafter defined) other persons, bodies and organisations.

4 thoughts on “Medicinal Receipts Research Group History”

  1. Fascinating! I have no academic background in the subject, so all I can do is stand out of everyone’s way and admire. Some of the information sounds like my great-grandmother and grandmother, both of whom were very able herb doctors and midwives. Unfortunately, neither was literate enough to write down their recipes. And I came along too late to help out.

  2. I have discovered a commonplace book with remedies written c 1560 – I have no background in medieval medicine and would like to find someone with expertise who might help me identify where the remedies came from – they are likely I guess to have been copied. This is one example Take two spoonful’s of honey and half as much of wax, boil it in an old cup, take a piece of new dowlas (course linen) and dip in therein, and lay it to your breast. Refresh it every morning, putting honey and wax unto it at each time. Lay it whole upon the sore place. Any help would be appreciated.

  3. I have around 100 pages of medical receipts, which are probably something around 300 medications. Positive context dating gives 1782 to 1808.
    Transcription can be tricky.
    Ann Yatman was the wife of the Rector of Blackburn, Thomas Starkie, from around 1780 to 1818. It seems as if she died fairly young in 1795.
    Rx Pil. Bufi; Calomel pp pulv Castor
    Mess: a qt. ij. ol: Junip: {Ch}:[.j} mfPil. ij-
    Rx Pil. Gumos: ℥i- Bufi: Pulv:Castor:B.-
    Chalyb.  cum sulph: pp┌~┐a┌ _ ┐ ʒss ol: Succini  ℈┌xx┐. x
    mf.Pil: xxx-
    for Miss Yatman- Dr Mushel-
    Rx Pil.. Bufi ℈ij: Bufi:Ji Castor: Bufi: ℈i
    {…..}:{…alizat}: ℈ss..ol laven: ʒ{┌.┐}iv
    Elix: myrrh: Comp{.}.{.}.{..}:mass: in Pil aa┌-┐
    ʒ{┌.┐} iij form..d- Juni ij: ℈{…}[..}.qq Nocte alt
    for Miss Yatman  Dr Storer-

    With a list like that it could be said the medicines killed her, but at present I have no idea, except the medicines include treatments for breast cancer.
    I have no idea what she suffered from.
    All to often I find medications that would kill the children, kill the horse or cow, and kill themselves, or they could just end up with a morphine addiction.
    My theme in this is a fiendish delight in self destruction, however this is a glimpse of how the rich lived in a major English country mansion, and highlights the separation from the norms of ordinary people living at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

  4. Can anyone in the group help direct me to find recipe books dating 1750 through 1833. My family and I are living history apothecaries who portray apothecaries from 1750 through 1900. We have had a running, working apothecary for the Victorian period but need to collect resources for the “colonial” period. We are not a company, we don’t make any money doing this, and wish to portray the period properly and are having difficulty finding recipe books for this period. Please send any correspondence to
    Thank you.

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