Tag Archives: efficacy

Once it proved effective for noble men and women

By Sietske Fransen, with Saskia Klerk

First of all, I owe you the result of a question I posted in my previous blog about the Leiden manuscript BPL3603. I wondered whether anyone could help me find the name of the Archduchess of Innsbruck who was mentioned by Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont. The world of Twitter soon came up with the answer from Maartje van de Kamp (@Lizzyin2015): it must be Anne de Medici.

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Anna de Medici, by Giovanni Maria Morandi
Anna de Medici (1666), by Giovanni Maria Morandi

I cannot agree more. Anne de Medici married Ferdinand Charles the Archduke of Further Austria in 1646 and at the time she spoke to Franciscus Mercurius in 1650 she was still childless. She eventually had two surviving children: the Archduchesses Claudia Felicitas of Austria and Maria Magdalena of Austria. A third child died at birth.  Anne died in the year 1676, which would explain the reference to the ‘last-deceased empress’, as it is in 1676 that van Helmont is telling this story. Many thanks to Maartje!

I would like to continue this post discussing the impact of noble men and women in the manuscript that has been the centre of the series on Dutch Medicines. Two month ago I had the pleasure of spending two weeks at  Leiden University Library, and I had the time to re-visit BPL3603. Reading the manuscript, it struck me how often the names of famous people were used as a validation for the efficacy of certain recipes and drugs. A good example was the fertility drug mentioned above to which the Archduchess of Innsbruck lent her authority. But there are  several more.

On page 32 of the manuscript we find a recipe for a remedy to re-gain one’s eye-sight within 14 days, even if it had been lost for 7 years (Een kostelijke Medicine om het gesicht wederom te krijgen (al had men ‘t zeven jaren quit geweest) in 14 dagen tijds).

University Library Leiden, MS PBL3603, p. 32: Count Palatine Frederick approved of the recipe.
University Library Leiden, MS PBL3603, p. 32: Count Palatine Frederick approved of the recipe.

The recipe is followed by a little statement saying that Count Palatine Frederick has tried this and found it good, even on people who have been blind for seven years. Most likely this is the Winter King, or Elector Palatine Frederick V (1596-1632)  who lived in The Hague after he had to flee Bohemia in 1622 until his death. Thus, this is a combination of royal approval and local witness to the cure.

On page 34 another recipe for eye diseases was time tested by the ‘Margravine of Ansbach’. It is unclear to me who is meant here; there are again several options. The principality of Ansbach is located in Bavaria in Germany and although I have not been able to find the connection between Ansbach and the Netherlands at the time that the compiler of our manuscript was writing.

Fragment from Leiden University Library, MS BPL3603, p. 52.
Fragment from Leiden University Library, MS BPL3603, p. 52.

Many noble men and women have tried the recipe for the stone that is written on page 52. And they have found it ‘waarachtig‘, or truthful.

Detail of drinkable balsam for the Prince of Orange, Leiden University Library, MS BPL3603, p. 84.
Detail of drinkable balsam for the Prince of Orange, Leiden University Library, MS BPL3603, p. 84.

My final example describes a recipe for ‘milk, cream, or butter of sulphur’, which turns out to be a generally useful and invigorating balsam. It needs to be drunk as a mixture ‘with any liquor or water that is appropriate for the ailment’. All of this was found by the doctor of the Prince of Anhalt; bought by the Duke of Flanders for 500 crones; and then communicated to the Prince of Orange to use against the plague. Again, we find that a recipe came from Germany to the Netherlands, and its efficacy is proven by the fact that noble people used it. Subsequently, this recipe was brought to the geographical region of the compiler by the reference to the Prince of Orange. The date of the transmission of the recipe is not mentioned, which makes it hard to guess which Prince we are talking about. However, any of the Princes of Orange would have at least spent some of their time in The Hague.

All is to say that the efficacy of recipes seems measured not only by its power to cure but also by its power whom to cure. In the first instance I was surprised about the German noble men and women named in the manuscript, as it seems to contradict the manuscript’s local aspects. We have previously seen how the compiler used local Dutch sources, see for example Saskia’s blog about the hare. However, most of the people named are linked to the Low Countries and more specifically to the West of the Northern Netherlands. This might be another indication that the compiler of the manuscript was somehow linked to that part of the country himself, something that will be further explored in future blog posts.

A medicine for the Archduchess of Innsbruck

By Sietske Fransen, with Saskia Klerk.

Two months ago Saskia Klerk discussed a recipe for the breaking of a bladder stone. It seems that the author of manuscript BPL3603 included this recipe into his collection because of the wonderful curative properties it proved to possess according to the eyewitness accounts documented in the text.

On pages 117 and 118 of the same manuscript we find an ‘Excellent recipe against all ailments and diseases that have their origin in corrupt blood and bad humours’. At the top of the page we find the word ‘Helmont’ written under the heading, leading us once more to my favourite medical author. However, at the bottom of page 118 we can find an interesting note pointing not to Jan Baptista van Helmont, but rather to his son, Franciscus Mercurius (1614-1698). The note reads:

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3606, p. 118 (selection): mentioning the oral transmission by Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 118 (selection): mentioning the oral transmission by Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont

“Thus written after the oral teachings of Sir Helmondt, on the 22nd of September 1676.”

Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont styled himself as a ‘wandering hermit’ and travelled through Europe ever since his father’s death on the penultimate day of the year in 1644. He spent time in the Northern Netherlands and lived for many years in England as well as in Germany. He must have been a charismatic figure and most certainly a beloved guest of many European noble households. He was notorious for not writing down his own thoughts and ideas. It is therefore not surprising to find a note saying that a recipe has been transmitted by oral communication; it actually fits the picture of Franciscus Mercurius very well.

Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, 1670-1, by Sir Peter Lely. ©Tate Photographic Rights ©Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03583
Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, 1670-1, by Sir Peter Lely. ©Tate Photographic Rights ©Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03583

Although Franciscus Mercurius never went to university, he seems to have been able to sell himself as a physician. Most likely this was a result of his father’s fame. Franciscus Mercurius was for example the personal physician of Anne Conway for a decade until her death in 1679, trying (but failing) to cure her from her terrible headaches. Most of these ten years he lived as part of her household in Warwickshire. However, during the same period, he also travelled regularly to the continent, and must have been able to communicate this ‘excellent recipe’ to the Dutch context, potentially directly to the author of the manuscript. Let’s turn to the recipe to see what kind of treatments Franciscus Mercurius was sharing.

The basic ingredient for the recipe is red coral. This should be ground and dissolved in alcohol (‘sterk water’), mixed with a solution of tartar in alcohol, and subsequently slowly boiled down to dry powder. The dry powder is mixed with liquid saltpetre and dry cooked in an oven. Once the dry mixture is cooled down it needs to be stored in a humid cellar for about 5 to 6 days. After grinding the powder once more, it should be put in a glass bottle with half a pint of good brandy. The red coloured brandy should then be poured into another glass bottle’ while leaving the red powder at the bottom of the first bottle; this procedure should be repeated until the brandy does not colour red any more. A glass of beer or wine with about 50 drops of this brandy should be drunk twice a day as the first drink at the table in the afternoon and the evening.

Cabinet of Curiosities, 1690s, by Domenico Remps, Museo dell'Opificio delle Pietro Dure, Florence. Source: WikiCommons. Red coral is depicted at the top of the right door.
Cabinet of Curiosities, 1690s, by Domenico Remps, Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietro Dure, Florence. Source: WikiCommons. Red coral is depicted at the top of the right door.

The compiler of the manuscript added a note, presumably referring to Franciscus Mercurius, saying that he has helped with this recipe many old and seemingly infertile women, as well as those who had miscarried previously, to deliver healthy children. However, with which authority is Franciscus Mercurius speaking? His father mentions a medicine ‘Arcanum corallinum’, in both his Dutch and Latin medical works as a very effective drug against all sorts of fevers. However, he does not give the recipe or method of preparation. I would not be surprised if Franciscus Mercurius had become popular as a doctor by disclosing the recipes of medicines mentioned in his father’s (hugely popular) medical publications. Whether these recipes were originally his father’s is hard to prove.

Typical for both father and son Van Helmont is the inclusion of a particular case in which a recipe has been effective. In this case we find Franciscus Mercurius referring to an anecdote from 1650:

University Library Leiden, MS BPL3606, p. 118 (selection): the anecdote about the Archduchess.
University Library Leiden, MS BPL3603, p. 118 (selection): the anecdote about the Archduchess.

“The mother of the last-deceased Empress and Archduchess of Innsbruck, had me arrested in Innsbruck in the year 1650. She asked for advice to have children. I had her make and take the above-mentioned recipe herself, and afterwards she gave birth to two children. And she told me and has written me several times, that she has been lucky also with other women, who have tried the same.”

It is absolutely possible that Franciscus Mercurius was in Innsbruck in 1650; however the identity of Archduchess remains an unsolved riddle. I have my thoughts, but look forward to reading your suggestions!

Adjudicating “Caesar’s Cure for Poison”

By Claire Gherini

Part I of this series on the “discovery” and publication of Caesar’s poison antidotes and Sampson’s cure for rattlesnake bites examined why the members of the South Carolina Commons House of the Assembly wanted the recipes of Caesar and Sampson. Part 2 examines how South Carolina’s lawmakers in the Commons House of the Assembly evaluated the veracity of Caesar’s and Sampson’s medical claims. Lawmakers believed that in order to determine the efficacy of Caesar’s poison antidote, they needed first to determine Caesar’s aptitude in the diagnosis of poison cases. Notably, the Assembly eschewed methods available from the world of natural history and experimental science. Lawmakers instead relied on sworn testimony from elite laypeople to assess Caesar’s antidote, a method that mirrored the legal practices prevalent in trials of slaves accused of poisoning in the colony’s courts and which, in court, often incorrectly led to the conviction of slaves. 

When Lowcountry colonists sickened and died suddenly, it was extraordinarily difficult to determine if death was the product of a poisonous mixture clandestinely mixed in “amongst the victuals served at table,” or a natural ailment. [1] The symptoms medical practitioners in the region used to diagnose cases of poisoning provided little insight. Poisons, one practitioner proclaimed, “causeth divers symptoms and the effect is various…..it kills sometimes in very few hours, sometimes in some months, and at others in some years.” The most telltale signs of poisoning were only discernable when the victims were African or Afro-Creoles, because, the practitioner explained, “the Negroes turn white.”[2] The incompetence of South Carolina’s white practitioners in the identification of many ailments exacerbated the numerous problems inherent in the diagnosis of poisoning in the colony, a situation that no doubt compounded the litany of false poison accusations made against enslaved people. “Hundreds died by the unskillfulness of the practitioners mismanaging acute disorders…they immediately call them poison cases so as to cover their own ignorance” the South Carolina naturalist and physician Alexander Garden observed. [3]

Caesar's Cure published in The South Carolina Gazette, May 14, 1750. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.
Caesar’s Cure published in The South Carolina Gazette, May 14, 1750. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.

Contemporaries’ difficulties in assessing whether the origin of an illness lay in a poison or some other cause made it difficult to ascertain whether a purported poison antidote actually healed a poison. In order to determine whether Caesar’s antidote healed poisons and not some other illness, lawmakers proclaimed the necessity of evaluating Caesar’s dexterity in medical diagnosis and therapeutics. As stated in their own words, lawmakers wanted to hear  “the symptoms by which he [Caesar] knew when any person was poisoned.” Members also solicited from Caesar descriptions “concerning the cure of poisons, together with the names of plants which he made use of in performing the aforesaid cure, and his method of preparing and administering the same.” [4] To weigh the efficacy of Caesar’s poison antidote, Caesar’s competence as a diagnostician was put, in a manner of speaking, on trial before the members of the Assembly.

Instead of trying Caesar’s aptitude in diagnosis, lawmakers could have focused on the antidote itself.  Lawmakers could have used animals as experimental test subjects to see if  Caesar’s poison worked and was safe, a method used by many early modern people (a practice Alisha Rankin’s post explores).  Precedent existed, moreover, for this method in South Carolina where two decades earlier prominent colonists had published an article documenting their successful use of dogs, non venomous snakes, hens, and cats in experiments they made to determine whether antimony worked as a potential antidote for venomous snakebites. [5]  A less involved option would have been to look up the virtues of wild horehound and wild plantain, the two ingredients listed in Caesar’s cure, in one of the natural history texts describing the properties of different flora and fauna of the region. Consulting their personal copies of Mark Catsby’s two-volume (1731 & 1743) Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, lawmakers might have affirmed that these plants functioned as poison antidotes. Lawmakers, however, judged Caesar’s diagnostic skills by collecting sworn testimony from prominent (but by no means expert) white males who had witnessed Caesar’s work as a healer.

These methods of discernment replicated practices common in the trials of the colony’s slaves who had been accused of poisoning whites or other slaves, wherein juries were asked to determined whether the deceased had been poisoned or had died from other causes. To make this judgement, juries in poison trials relied in large measure on the testimony of propertied white laypeople who described the relationship between the deceased and the accused.

In the adjudication of Caesar’s cure, the witnesses’ status as white elite males augmented their reliability as interpreters of the natural world—their ability, that is, to differentiate between ailments caused by poisoning and those brought about by other causes. One of the largest landowners in the colony and a wealthy slaveowner, Henry Middleton Esq., testified that he believed “his disorder proceeded from poison, as he found a good effect from the first dose of Caesar’s antidote and after the second dose the symptoms of his disorder entirely left him.” Middleton also relayed the experiences of his white overseer who ““was in a worse situation than himself,” and was “entirely relieved by the same hand.” As a man of middling status, the overseer’s preliminary interpretation of having been poisoned received official recognition only when the elite planter (Middleton) spoke on his behalf. William Miles, a planter from St. Andrew’s parish, told the Assembly that “he verily believed his sister had been poisoned and was cured by Caesar, and that some time afterward his brother seemed effected with a very odd disorder, and suspecting that it was the effects of poison, sent for Caesar who relieved him instantly.”  Miles further testified that he currently “suspects his son to be in the same situation and wants Caesar to his relief.” [6] These testimonies served multiple functions: they affirmed Caesar’s original diagnosis of poisoning; established his competency as a healer in poison cases; and, on these grounds, vouchsafed the efficacy of his antidote.

Sampson's Cure for Snakebites in the South Carolina Gazette, April 8, 1756. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.
Sampson’s Cure for Snakebites in the South Carolina Gazette, April 8, 1756. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.

In taking stock of Sampson’s antidote for the snakebite, lawmakers did not bother to ascertain Sampson’s diagnostic abilities. There was no need. In contrast to cases of poisoning, it seemed obvious that if one had been bitten by a venomous snake, the infirmities and death that subsequently followed originated from the encounter with the animal and its venom. The members of the Assembly thought about testing Sampson’s snakebite antidote (presumably on a dog), but it was the middle of winter. “No experiment of the remedy can at this season be tried,” they reported. Dormant in the winter, the venomous snakes  lawmakers wanted were, I suspect, difficult to find. (Perhaps South Carolina’s vipers had shriveled up into brittle little frozen snake-sticks?)  Lawmakers instead heard affirmations from five slaveowners, who declared that “their negroes have been perfectly cured of the said Sampson [of their snakebites],” agreed with Sampson’s owner on the compensation he would receive, and called it a day.[7]

This post has shown the similarity between the types of evidence (testimony from elite male clients) that lawmakers used to make sure that Caesar’s antidotes for poisons actually worked to cure poisons and the types of evidence (sworn testimony from white colonists) that juries received when adjudicating poison accusations in the colony’s courts. In highlighting the juridical nature of the tactics lawmakers used to verify Caesar’s poison diagnoses, this post has tentatively located the origins of these methods in the socially and racially asymmetrical world of colonial poison trials.

[1] Alexander Garden, Charleston to Charles Alston, Edinburgh, January 21, 1753, Laing MSS, III, 375/42, University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[2] Doctor Milward’s Letter to the President of the Royal Society reprinted in South Carolina Gazette, July 24, 1749.

[3] Alexander Garden, Charleston to Charles Alston, Edinburgh,  February 18, 1756, Laing MSS, III, 375/44,  University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[4] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterby (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 479.

[5] Captain Hall and Hans Sloane, “An Account of Some Experiments on the Effects of the Poison of the Rattle-Snake,” Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), 35 (1727-1728): 309-315.

[6] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterly (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 293.

[7] Journal of the Commons House of Assembly (November 21, 1752-September 6, 1754), Vol. 15, Edited by Terry. W. Lipscomb (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 335.

Testing Drugs and Trying Cures Workshop Summary

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 http://cures.hypotheses.org/the-workshop/programme-2/bycroft-michael

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.

From http://www.gn.geschichte.uni-muenchen.de/aktuelles/archiv_2011/archiv_2013/science_and_medicine/index.html

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 http://cures.hypotheses.org/the-workshop/programme-2/boumediene-samir

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 http://cures.hypotheses.org/the-workshop/programme-2/hanson-marta-and-pomata-gianna

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.