Tag Archives: antimony

Two ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures in Seventeenth-century Southeast Asia

Tara Alberts, University of York

The life of a seventeenth-century Catholic missionary in Asia could be arduous. Many newly arrived missionaries documented their difficulties with the local climate, food, water, and troublesome insects. Above all they fretted about the unfamiliar illnesses that plagued them, and which could bring their endeavours to a premature end. Their letters are peppered with references to concerns about health, and with requests for and advice about available remedies. Preserved in the archives of the Société des Missions Étrangères in Paris is a copy of such a letter, sent in 1692 by missionaries in the Society’s seminary in Siam (Thailand) to their confrères working in Tonkin (Vietnam) (AMEP vol. 850, pp. 152-64). The letter is typical of its genre, containing news, requests for information, pious sentiments, and advice. It also contains intriguing and unusual paragraph – described as a ‘recette’ in the archive’s descriptive catalogue – concerning the use of two curative substances. Breaking off from some unrelated news, the authors suddenly decide to advise their colleagues that:

“Crocus metallorum is made from prepared antimony, and if it is infused in grape wine it makes emetic wine, so this crocus is taken solely for purging and evacuating from above and below; it is used for almost every sort of illness, as long as the patient still has enough strength. The dose is from 18 to 30 grains, which is given to the strongest. It is neither heated nor boiled, nor mixed with anything else, it is simply swallowed in wine, or in water, or with sugar, or with a fig – indeed it doesn’t matter with what as long as it is swallowed. Cinchona is a bark from a tree which comes from the New World: an excellent and near infallible remedy to cure all sorts of fevers which are not accompanied by oppressions or inflammations of the chest: it was an English doctor who recently brought these barks to France. We think we sent you the method to use this in the last year, but just in case we’re sending it again this year.“ (p. 160).

The inclusion of this paragraph raises a number of questions about missionary medicine. In my previous work, which explored conversion to Catholicism in Southeast Asia, I discussed how missionaries often presented themselves as healers in order to convince people of their spiritual powers. This ‘recipe’, however, points to another set of issues which merits further investigation, relating to missionary engagement with medical developments and controversies in Europe, and about missionaries’ interests in using relatively ‘new’ techniques and materia medica on their mission fields.

The first cure – crocus metallorum – is a preparation of a substance which has been discussed before on this blog: antimony. The discussion of its use in this letter is almost an anti-recipe: the remarkable effectiveness of this remedy was such that the composition of the delivery mechanism was unimportant. Indeed the initial illness of the patient hardly mattered – this was a true cure-all. The use of antimonial cures had been extremely controversial throughout most of the seventeenth century. Following a décret of the Sorbonne’s faculty of medicine, and an arrêt of the Parlement of Paris in 1666 permitting their use, they became increasingly sought after.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London La calcination Solaire de L'antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.  Wellcome Library, London
Credit: 
La calcination Solaire de L’antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.
Wellcome Library, London

The second remedy is also a miracle cure of sorts: the ‘near-infallible’ bark of the Cinchona tree, a source of quinine, effective against malarial fevers. No mention is made of the rival missionaries who were associated with this remedy in Europe: the Jesuits, who played an important role in its dissemination. We know from other letters that French Jesuits had supplied some of this bark to Missions Étrangères priests in Siam in the 1680s.  But this letter – which had earlier mentioned the tensions between the two societies – only mentions the ‘English doctor’ credited with introducing the substance to France. This is most probably a reference to Robert Talbor, whose secret recipe for a fever cure based on Cinchona had been revealed in a book published in 1682, shortly after his death. The letter promises that a fuller account of the means of preparing this bark will be sent to Vietnam. I have yet to find this account, but it would be interesting to compare the method to the Talbor recipe, and to Jesuit recipes of the same period.

p>Illustration of the Cinchona tree from Theodor Zwingler's herbal (1696) Wikimedia Commons
Illustration of the Cinchona tree from Theodor Zwingler’s herbal (1696) Wikimedia Commons

Both substances held great promise:  they seemed to be extremely efficacious and had become famous, even fashionable in France in the last decades of the century. The use of both medicines by royalty had undoubtedly added to their appeal, and encouraged their acceptance by the medical establishment. Louis XIV had been successfully treated with antimonial wine; Talbor’s cinchona remedies were also credited with saving the life of the king’s son. Yet both remedies were also controversial. Naysayers continued to raise doubts about their efficacy and safety, and about the probity of those who would prescribe them. In many ways they represented new approaches to medicine, championed by those who sought to isolate universal remedies and infallible cure-alls. It seems that members of the Société des Missions Étrangères embraced these approaches, and helped to introduce these ideas to their mission fields.

A seventeenth-century miner’s brandy recipe

A mine, print from Goossen van Vreeswijck, Cabinet der Mineralen, Amsterdam 1675
A mine, print from Goossen van Vreeswijck, Cabinet der Mineralen, Amsterdam 1675

By Marieke Hendriksen

Recently, I’ve been studying, amongst others, the works of a seventeenth-century Dutch bergwerker, freely translated a miner, or rather a mining specialist. Goossen van Vreeswijck (ca. 1626- after 1689) was an adventurous man, who worked in the Low Countries, the German lands, Sweden, England, and even in regions presently in Surinam and Canada. He published a number of works on mining and alchemy in Dutch – a unique body of work that has been given little attention by historians of chemistry so far. Although Van Vreeswijck probably did not have a university education, he was well versed in the important alchemical and mining literature of his time, as he frequently discusses and criticizes authors such as Basil Valentine and Georg Agricola. His books are clearly aimed at other Dutchmen who will have to work in mines in faraway regions; they offer all kinds of practical and technical advice regarding the establishment and operation of a mine and the subtraction and chemistry of metals.

I am primarily interested in the use of metals in early modern chemistry and medicine, yet Van Vreeswijck’s work contains so many other gems that I could not withstand sharing one of them with you here. Probably because Van Vreeswijck’s audience was likely to spend long periods away from civilization, he also included recipes for the production of staples, such as brandy. In his book De Roode Leeuw, of het Sout der Philosophen (The Red Lion, or the Salt of the Philosophers, 1672), the title of which suggests a treatise on the matter of the Tincture or the Philosoher’s Stone, Van Vreeswijck discusses a wide variety of topics, ranging from the production of saltpetre from charcoal to the explanation of dreams and the best way to make brandy. Dutch brandy was usually made from grains like wheat or rye, but, Van Vreeswijck warned, this was not such a good idea as it might induce God’s wrath. He based this admonition on Isaiah 55:2, which says:

Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.

Exactly why it would be a better idea to make brandy from all other kinds of fruits and vegetables, as Van Vreeswijck continues to argue, does not become entirely clear – but he seems to imply he did not find these satisfying or good to eat (fattening) as such, and brandy was seen as a necessity with medicinal qualities. It was used, amongst others, as a diuretic and purgative.

Van Vreeswijck illustrated most of his work with images he had copied from the popular emblem books of Jacob Cats - who used this image of a hand picking up grapes as an emblem of virginity, rather than  to refer to brandy.
Van Vreeswijck illustrated most of his work with images he had copied from the popular emblem books of Jacob Cats – who used this image of a hand picking up grapes as an emblem of virginity, rather than to refer to brandy. Source: Jacob Cats, Maechden-plicht, Middelburg, 1618.

The list that follows, of what can be used as a basis for brandy, is impressive: anything from grapes, apples, pears, prunes, to raspberries and cherries, even cabbage will do. As grapes can be grown in most mild climates, instructions are given on how to set up and manage a vineyard. Another benefit of using grapes for brandy was the appearance of tartar and lees as by-products, which, Van Vreeswijck points out, are used in medicine, dying, and many other crafts. Yet if grapes were not available almost any other fruit would do. The fermentation process might need some encouragement, for which yeast, sourdough, tartar, alkaline salt, wine vinegar, saltpetre, or antimony could be used. Amounts are not mentioned, as they would have depended on the kind and amount of fruit used, nor are there any specific instructions for distillation. Goossen van Vreeswijck’s brandy ‘recipe’ should thus be seen in the context of his works – a set of practical pointers for miners and others who needed to produce things they otherwise would have bought. By including some Biblical references and illustrating his work with copies of emblems from the works of the hugely popular Dutch author Jacob Cats (1577-1660), he stressed his reliability.

Metallic cures: antimonial wine and mineral kermes

By Marieke Hendriksen

In my previous post, I wrote about the ubiquity of mercurial drugs in the long eighteenth century. Mercury is a metal we are all quite familiar with, yet a variety of cures was based on metals and metallic compounds well into the nineteenth century – some of which we hardly hear of anymore today. Drugs based on antimony, a lustrous grey metalloid often found in ores together with either sulfur or mercury, and mineral kermes, a compound of antimony trioxide and trisulfide, were very popular. In universal encyclopedias from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century for example, we find complicated recipes to create mineral kermes, which involve repeated distilling of a mixture of sulfur of antimony, fixed niter or potassium carbonate, and river- or rainwater.[i]

Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.
Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.

Although it unlikely anyone tried these recipes at home, the use of antimony and its derivatives had a long tradition. Antimony cups were used since antiquity to make antimonial wine by soaking regular wine in it for one or more days.[ii] The fact that antimony frequently occurred together with mercury or sulphur appealed to alchemists, apothecaries, and other medical men and women, as sulphur and mercury were considered the basic alchemical elements. Moreover, as antimony could cleanse the most precious metal, gold, from impurities, alchemists reasoned it could also cleanse and cure God’s most precious creature, created after his own image: man. Hence Paracelsus (1493-1541) and many of his followers advocated the use of small amounts of antimony in iatrochemical drugs, although they were well aware of the fact that it is highly poisonous.

Antimonial wine thus was a tried emetic, yet antimony cups were forbidden in England and France for much of the seventeenth century, as the use of a wine too acidic would result in a lethal concoction. This prohibition was sometimes circumnavigated by creating antimony cups from tin with a small amount of antimony.[iii] In France antimony cups became legal once more in 1658, after Louis XIV was cured from typhoid fever with antimonial wine.[iv] After this royal endorsement of antimony, men of science started to investigate it more closely than ever before. Between 1700 and 1707 the French chemist Lemery wrote an extensive series of articles on antimony and its medicinal uses for the Académie des Sciences, culminating in a book describing all the changes it underwent by chemical procedures, and how the resulting substances could be used in medicine.[v] The Leiden professor of chemistry Gaub too devoted a substantial part of his lectures on metals on antimony and mineral kermes, extensively discussing the chemical procedures that should be applied to create effective medical materials.[vi]

French Apothecary Bottle: Kermes Mineral, 1880s. Courtesy of Dr Jack Fincham.
French Apothecary Bottle with traces of Kermes Mineral, 1880s. Courtesy of Dr Jack Fincham.

The recipes in the encyclopedias show that mineral kermes was one of the most important medical materials that could be created through chemically treating antimony. As can still be seen in a late nineteenth-centruy French apothecary bottle, it is a reddish brown powder. The powder does not dissolve in water and, like mercury, had a reputation for cleansing the lymphatic vessels, and was also used as an emetic and diaphoretic. The name was probably derived from the Arabic name for a similarly coloured crimson dye made from insects, al-qirmiz. The use of mineral kermes as a drug was apparently first mentioned by Glauber (1604-1670), but how to successfully create it remained a subject of debate into the nineteenth century, even after an official recipe was published by the king of France in 1720.[vii]


[i] De Felice, Fortunato Bartolomeo, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire universel raisonné des connoissances, (Paris, 1773), Vol. 25, p. 345. Wilkes, John, Encyclopaedia Londinensis, or, Universal Dictionary of Arts (London: J. Adlard, 1810), Vol. iv, p. 277.

[ii] Also see one of my previous blogs on The Medicine Chest.

[iii] StClair Thomson, “Antimonyall Cupps: Pocula Emetica or Calices Vomitorii”, Proc. Roy. Soc. Med., Vol. XIX, no. 9, 1925, 123-8.

[iv] C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012, 49.

[v] Lemery, Nicolás, Traité de L’antimoine (Paris: Jean Boudot, 1707).

[vi] Gaub, H.D., ‘Chemiae Praxis. Notes of Lectures by an Unnamed Student. Produced in Leyden.’, Closed stores WMS 4  MS.2479, Wellcome Library Manuscripts, p. 593-685.

[vii] Willich, A.F.M., A Domestic Encyclopedia Or A Dictionary Of Facts, And Useful Knowledge, 3 vols. (London: B. McMillan, 1802), p. 46.