Bulk Medicine and Waged Labor in Eighteenth-Century London

By Zachary Dorner

In the eighteenth century, druggists, chemists, and apothecaries began producing medicines in larger quantities for sale in a variety of markets, resulting in a more coherent manufacturing sector in Britain. Making medicines at such scale typically involved labor-intensive chemical processes occurring in laboratories that resembled other early industrial spaces as sites of work. We can catch a glimpse of these spaces in images like the frontispiece of the chemist Francis Spilsbury’s Friendly Physician (1773) where two figures toil with mortars, stills, and other instruments in the background, separated from the well-organized shop in the image’s foreground. A variety of business records from period pharmacies, including wage books, inventories, and recipes, enable us to uncover a little more about those indistinct figures bent over their work.

Figure 1: Interior of a pharmacy. From Spilsbury, The Friendly Physician (1773). Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

The increasing concentration of labor and capital in London’s medical marketplace encouraged men and women to set up laboratories, big and small, around the city, as seen in contemporary fire insurance policies. These laboratories were no longer artisanal workshops, though also not yet the steam-powered production lines of the nineteenth century. Alchemical techniques formerly applied to the transmutation of metals found use in the production of medicines in these spaces, such as the chemical laboratory depicted in William Lewis’s Philosophical Commerce of Arts (1763). They could contain machinery for grinding, pounding, and sifting drugs (the raw materials for compound medicines), as well as high-pressure boilers and furnaces for distillation and drying. Open fires were common beneath hundred-gallon stills, evaporating pans, condensers, copper boilers, and stoves. If temperatures went unmanaged, ingredients could burn, ruining a preparation; even worse, stills could boil over or even explode. Manufacturing medicines with this equipment required significant inputs of energy, increasingly supplied by waged labor forces during the eighteenth century.

Figure 2: A view of William Lewis’s chemical laboratory. From Lewis, Commercium Philosophico-Technicum (1763). Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Some traces of their daily routines can be found in recipe books from Corbyn & Company, one of the highest volume producers and distributors of medicine in London at the time. A recipe for flower of benzoin (benzoic acid, a topical antiseptic also used for a variety of internal matters) from the 1760s, for example, evokes the work of pharmacy. To start the process, several hundredweight of gum benzoin, a fragrant resin from the benjamin tree of Sumatra and Java, had to be purchased at auction and carted to the partnership’s laboratory at Cold Bath Fields where it would be pressed and milled, requiring several days, multiple men, and lots of charcoal. These manipulations were followed by 50 days purifying the resin through distillation (called rectifying). All in all, Thomas Corbyn estimated that the production of benzoin took 63 days and cost about 2 shillings per day for the work, which also included cleaning the distillation equipment, wear and tear of the machinery, and extra expenses (such as 8 weeks of beer for the workers costing 18 pence per week). These costs, nevertheless, remained relatively minor compared to the sometimes quite significant costs of raw materials, thus incentivizing production at scale.

Figure 3: Flower of benzoin costing from Thomas Corbyn’s miscellaneous papers, c. 1760, MS.5448/2, Wellcome Collection.

Corbyn & Co. shipped much of the medicine they produced, such as the hard-pressed flower of benzoin, to the overseas markets provided by imperial institutions, such as the Royal Navy, East India Company, transatlantic slave trade, and Caribbean plantations. With increasing demand at home and aboard, political support, and capitalization, London’s pharmacies kept growing in the early nineteenth century, with some of them providing the seeds of several of today’s major pharma firms.

Figure 4: Glass medicine bottles for export used in the eighteenth century. Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

It can be surprisingly easy to miss the labor in London’s laboratories that underwrote the expanding production of medicines in eighteenth-century London. A chemist’s or druggist’s work area has received far less attention in histories of capitalism or industry than the cotton mill, for example. Recipes and other business records from London’s pharmacies, however, offer an opportunity to begin reconstructing the rhythms of work in these spaces and reintegrate them into studies of economy, labor, and health.

Figure 5: Plan of the laboratory at Apothecaries’ Hall, 1823. From The Origin, Progress and Present State… (1823). Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Revisiting Tillmann Taape’s Recipes against the plague – in pharmaceutical code?

Editor’s note: Today we revisit a post originally published in 2013 by Tillmann Taape on plague remedies given by the apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig in his Liber pestilentialis (1500). The book included an interesting mix of recipes in the vernacular German and in Latin. Readers unable to read Latin could copy a recipe, visit their apothecary, and collect their anti-plague remedies a little while later. Tillmann’s post offers  insights into the use of Latin as a sort of code. 

It strikes me that, five hundred years on, in the midst of another pandemic, Latin has now been almost entirely replaced by English in scientific discourse. And yet, Latin still lingers on, not the least in the name of the disease that has changed our lives: corona, the crown. To this classicist, the name ‘coronavirus’ calls to mind an evil crown-wearing tyrant. But as it did in the late Middle Ages, Latin obfuscates as much as it clarifies, and I find it fascinating that, to many, the new plague, under its shortened name of COVID-19, evokes not an item of jewellery, but a family of birds: the corvids (Latin: corvidae).

Laurence Totelin

By Tillmann Taape

Although the plague is best known for having wiped out about a third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, it continued to loom large as a threat to people’s health for hundreds of years, and medical writings on the Black Death or the ‘pestilence’ abounded. One of them, the Liber pestilentialis (1500) by the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here), was the first of its kind to be published as a printed book. Written in German, it had the potential to instruct a wide readership, reflecting Brunschwig’s mission to disseminate medical knowledge among laypeople. It struck me as somewhat odd, therefore, that quite a few of the recipes for remedies against the plague were given in Latin. What use were these to the readers of a book which was specifically addressed to all social ranks, including ‘common people’ who were not part of the Latin-speaking learned élite? Fortunately, Brunschwig provided an answer only a few pages on: simply copy the recipe on a slip of paper, send it off to your local apothecary, and collect your anti-plague pills a few days later.

Since Brunschwig was himself an apothecary in Strasbourg where the Liber pestilentialis was first published, one might suspect that by including these recipes he was hoping to advertise his trade, and draw attention to the knowledge and skill required to turn such coded messages into remedies. By his own admission, though, this only worked for readers who lived a manageable distance from an apothecary and could afford his services and ingredients, some of which, like theriac or amber, could be very costly. But Brunschwig also catered for those readers who lived in remote villages or were less well off. Often on the same page as the Latin instructions, he included an alternative recipe in German, using cheap everyday ingredients and simple household techniques.

This commitment to his less privileged readers, present in much of Brunschwig’s work, suggests that he was not printing recipes ‘in code’ simply in order to improve apothecaries’ image or to turn a better profit, much less to monopolise medical knowledge. There was, in fact, another very good reason for the use of Latin, as he explains in an intriguing comment: “Many recipes and ingredients cannot be succinctly expressed in the German language […], so I have left them in Latin.”

Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary's shop (from Brunschwig's 'Buch der CIrurgia')
Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary’s shop (from Brunschwig’s ‘Buch der CIrurgia’). (c) Wellcome Images

This points to a major difficulty faced by all medical authors writing in their native tongue. They were not only up against the disdain of learned physicians who wanted to keep all medical knowledge within university walls, well away from the ignorant ‘common people’. They were also facing the daunting task of creating a scientific vernacular in which to express medical concepts: how the human body works, what happens when it becomes diseased, and what to do about it. Finding their feet on uncharted linguistic territory and creating medical terminologies was the work of generations of practitioners from the middle ages to the early modern era. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, this process had come a long way, as Brunschwig’s writing shows: in his books on surgery and distillation (see here and here), he articulates elaborate techniques and medical theories in a confident technical vernacular – albeit one peppered with terms borrowed from Latin. In the case of specialist pharmaceutical ingredients and preparations, however, Brunschwig clearly felt that no adequate vocabulary was available in German. Some ingredients were just too  specific or too exotic to be known to the layman. Perhaps even more problematic were shorthand instructions such as fiat pulvis (it shall be a powder) or formentur pillule communi quantitatis (pills of equal quantity shall be formed). One can imagine what these few words translated to in practice: complicated series of decoctions, infusions, drying, boiling, grinding and mixing, all defined and learned over the course of an apprenticeship.

With no alternative to certain elements of Latin pharmaceutical jargon, then, the recipes in Brunschwig’s Liber pestilentialis inevitably fell into two categories. On the one hand, his wealthier readers had the option of having ‘professional’ remedies made according to the Latin recipes, which allowed them to tap into the entire range of medicinal ingredients and preparation techniques available at the nearest apothecary’s shop. Poorer folks and country dwellers, on the other hand, were offered a different type of recipe which could be articulated in the vernacular, required cheaper ingredients and could be managed at home.

Recipes and the “Weird”: A Halloween Rumination

By Jennifer Munroe

Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).
Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).

We might recall Shakespeare’s “Weird Sisters,” the seemingly-sinister witches from Macbeth. Their “Double, double toil and trouble” resonates in our memories as it does in their incantation before Macbeth: “Double, double toil and trouble: / Fire, burn; and, cauldron, bubble” (4.1.20-21). As All Hallow’s Eve approaches, it seems to me useful to revisit their charms; or, as it were, how we might use our sense of Macbeth’s witches to rethink some of the more unsavory of ingredients in early modern recipes, and how we might use these recipes to rethink our assumptions about the witches.

The Weird Sisters’ “hell-broth” includes such mammalian and amphibious creature parts as “eye of newt,” “Gall of goat,” “Adder’s fork,” “Wool of bat,” and “tongue of dog.” Macbeth is appalled at the concoction they brew, and, as it seems, so are audiences (especially modern).  The witches, so often portrayed today as elusive, macabre, dangerous, even grotesque, have been written into our modern imagination as integral to the darkness engulfing Dunsinane.

But what if their witchy-work is not-so-sinister after all? What if they simply get a bad rap? After all, it is Macbeth who does the killing in the play; they merely prognosticate his actions.

I turn to the manuscript recipe book of Rebeckah Winche, a contemporary source, though not of the kind we typically turn to when we ask about early modern witchcraft. For that, we more often go to Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) or the like. However, such animal ingredients were not uncommon in early modern recipes; and in those books, they certainly do not denote the dark arts. In Winche’s book, we find a series of recipes for “The King’s Evil,” Scrofula (or, tuberculosis), one that helps to identify the disease, and two to cure it:


A redy way to know the deseas called the Kings

Take a grownd worme & lay itt alive to the place greved &
take a green docke leafe or 2 andlay them upon the worme
& bine them to the place at night when the patient goes to
bed & if it be the kings evill itt will turne to dust or poud
=er by the morning otherwise it will remayn dead in his owne
former forme as it was a live

A perfect remydy to cure the desease called the kings evill
Take an ounce of pure yellow bees wax or something more
& an ounce uenice turpentine a good quantity of sheepes
suet clarified. boyle them alltogether & when thay are well
boyled put therein 2 good handfulls of the purest barly flower
clear without weedes then temper this flower with the other
things. then put therein 3 spoonfulls of the urin of a man
childe he being not above 3 years olde then boyle it agane
put itt in some earthen or gally pot & stop itt close, keepe it
for your use: when you use it spread it on a peece of fine
linin or on lether and lay it on the sore plaster waise &
by gods helpe it will cure the patient

A nother for the same deseas
Take a live toade & cut of one of her hinder legs
sewe it up in a pece of silke & hange it presently about the
neck of the party greeved. observe if it be a boy or man that
is greeved then a girl or woman must kill the toade but if
a girle or woman be ill then a man must kill it
this hath cured many however if doth sertanly help the other
remydy or any other you shall apply to the sore (if any) to
worke the better efect & sooner cure.

To diagnose “The King’s Evil,” one is instructed to lay a live worm to the aggrieved area, to fix to the unfortunate worm to  “green docke leafe” and wait to see whether the worm desiccates or remains plump (but still deceased) to determine whether the patient is indeed infected.

And to cure “The King’s Evil,” should the patient (and the worm) be so unfortunate, the practitioner summons not the powers of the otherworld, but the urine of a man-child… or the pieces of a toad, who is taken alive and dismembered, removing one of her “hinder legs,” which is then sewn into a silk parcel and hung from the patient’s neck. If a male patient, a woman kills the toad; if a female patient, then a man.

Certainly, this diagnosis and cure might strike some as hocus-pocus, drawing on superstition more than sound medical training and having no more validity than, say, snake oil or verging on something much darker. However, early modern medicine is flush with examples of such diagnoses and cures, and its practitioners appeared quite ready to employ them.

While early modern men and women used these cures as healers and patients, this sort of household medicine was also (and increasingly) understood as inferior relative the professional medicine of scientists and doctors, as practice not to be trusted—or, as we see so often in depiction of witches, as that which ought make us suspicious of its source and its agents.

So what is it about domestic medicine and cookery that has lent itself to this sort of denigration, or the fear associated with witchcraft that enables its marginalization? After all, early modern domestic medicine is not unlike modern herbal medicine, both of which have been relegated to inferior practice, nudged out by codified and “professional” modes of healing that tend to privilege machinery over touching, pharmaceuticals over tinctures and teas.

By juxtaposing Macbeth’s “Weird Sisters” with the recipes from the Winche book, both of which contain what are often associated with “witchy” ingredients, we focus less on the contents of the concoctions. Instead, we are forced to see the ways in which both highlight ways of knowing that are not easily quantified; this is not the ostensible “objective” knowledge of (early modern) science, but something more murky.

This does not mean they are at best silly frivolities and at worst sinister machinations. For Macbeth’s witches are guilty of nothing more than “knowing” (or foreknowing, since they merely predict his actions); they no more dictate Macbeth’s murderous ambitions than he can direct their appearances and disappearances. Early modern recipe practitioners who administer the earthy worm, who collect and pour the spoons full of man-child urine and dismember the toad and make a modern reader say, “Ew,” arguably did no less to diagnose and cure tuberculosis than the scientists of the day.

And as these amateur practitioners worked their medicine, they were necessarily called upon to observe their patients (and their ingredients) in ways that professional doctors and scientists were beginning to move away from: their tactile contact with worm, toad, urine, human skin, and the intensive observation within natural surroundings (rather than a lab) meant that they had to look, listen, and touch differently. Rather than in the laboratory, such amateur practitioners adapted their cures on site, modified their medicine according to individual need (see the many recipes “for another”) rather than generic conditions.

And so, I wonder if on this All Hallow’s season we might take the opportunity to revisit what seems “weird” about the sisters, and how the ingredients and practices of so many early modern men and women, might help us revisit the seemingly strange aspects of medicine in the period and its relation to its ostensible opposite, science. For in these recipes, the strange, the “weird,” may indeed be the very thing that we have made alien—the intimate connections between person and patient, between animal or plant and human, between self and Other–rather than what has in fact been alien all along.

Palm Trees and Potions: On Portuguese Pharmacy Signs

By Benjamin Breen

Figure 1. A pharmacy sign in Paris. Photo by Daniel Stockman, 2010.
Figure 1. A pharmacy sign in Paris. Photo by Daniel Stockman, 2010.

Anyone who has walked in a European city at night will be familiar with the glow of them: a vivid and snakelike green, slightly eerie when encountered on a lonely street, beautiful in the rain. They were once neon; now most are arrays of ultra-bright Chinese LEDs that blink on and off in intricate patterns. The glowing emerald cross of the pharmacy is among the most familiar symbols in Europe.

When I moved to Lisbon in 2012, however, I was interested to find that the pharmacy on my street bore a striking variation on the iconic green cross. In Portugal, the green crosses of many farmacias contain a small palm tree with a snake wrapped around it, or inside of it.

Figure 2. Farmácia Moz Teixera, on the Rua do Poço dos Negros, Lisbon.
Figure 2. Farmácia Moz Teixera, on the Rua do Poço dos Negros, Lisbon.

At first glance, there’s a fairly straightforward explanation for this: the iconography seems to owe its origin to the Sociedade Farmaceutica Lusitana (Portuguese Pharmaceutical Society), the emblem of which has featured a variation on the snake + palm tree + cross motif since the 19th century. But as with many explanations in history, this doesn’t really explain much at all. The Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in London glosses the symbol as simply representing the vegetable, animal and mineral kingdoms.

But this doesn’t satisfy – why a palm tree, in particular? Why Portugal?

As with many things in Lisbon, when we peel back a century or two, we find something surprising. The name of the street on which my local pharmacy was located, Rua do Poço dos Negros, offered a hint: literally translated, it means “The Road of the Pit of the Blacks.” Poço can also be translated as “well,” but as the historian James Sweet notes, this poço was in fact a burial pit, and Rua do Poço dos Negros was the main thoroughfare of a densely populated African neighborhood in sixteenth-century Lisbon known as Mocambo, the Kimbundu word for “hideout.” It was a center for what the Portuguese call feitiçaria, or sorcery, a term that was often employed by Portuguese-speakers in the early modern period to describe the practices of African healers who combined medical cures with religious rites that invoked ancestral spirits and divinities.

The snake and the palm tree were frequent motifs in early modern Portuguese depictions of African and indigenous American medical practices. To a Christian reader, the combination called to mind the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, thereby flagging the supposedly Satanic origins of cures from the non-Christian world.

But it also functioned as a proxy for the exotic and the tropical, showing up in places like the frontispiece illustrations of early scientific works about Brazil and the religious manuals of Catholic monks in Africa. Whenever early modern Europeans wanted to signify that a place was heathen, tropical and exotic, the trusty serpent and palm could be counted on.

Breen pharmacy 3
Figure 3. Left: an Italian capuchin monk destroys a Congolese “house of a feitiçeiro [casa d’un Faticchiero] filled with diabolical superstitions.” Source: Paolo Collo and Silva Benso, eds., Sogno: Bamba, Pemba, Ovando e altre contrade dei regni di Congo, Angola e adjacenti (Milan: published privately by Franco Maria Ricci, 1986), 163. Right: detail from the frontispiece of Willem Piso and Georg Marcgrave, Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (Amsterdam: Franciscus Hack, 1648).
To be sure, there were many, many ways of symbolizing the exotic and the colonial in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: alligators, dragons, Chinese maidens toting parasols, and mustachioed Turks with enormous turbans, to name a few. My personal favorite is the moose skull, seashell and pineapple combo that adorns this fanciful anonymous painting of an apothecary shop from early eighteenth century France.

Breen pharmacy 4
Figure 4. Anonymous eighteenth-century painting of an apothecary shop, University R. Descartes in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical and Biological Sciences in Paris, France.


But the snake and palm showed real longevity in the field of medicine and pharmacy, emerging as a common motif for the ceramic jars used to store drugs. Since at least the late medieval period, these jars had functioned as a form of advertising to display the wealth and judicious taste of the apothecary who dispensed drugs out of them: a shop with a full set of colorful Italian-made Maiolica jars, or with the more austere but beautiful blue-and-white Delftware jars favored in England and the Low Countries, promised to be a well-run establishment.

The introduction of new design motifs into drug jars was thus far from a random process. It was guided by the commercial needs of the drug merchant: how do I advertise the purity and potency of the drugs I have for sale? How do I broadcast my links to the Indies, where the most expensive drugs come from? We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find our friends the serpent and the palm appearing as a prominent motif on jars containing tropical drugs by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:


Breen Pharmacy 5
Figure 5. Nineteenth century drug jars for Basilicum (Basilicum polystachyon, a medicinal plant native to Africa and South Asia) and “Sapo Animal” (likely meaning “animal soap,” but perhaps the medicinal venom of the Amazonian sapo frog?) showing the serpent and palm motif in exoticized landscapes. Via Aspire Auctions.

The commercial pathways that carried medicinal drugs and recipes from the non-European cultures of Amazonia, Brazil and Africa also carried symbols. Can the palm and serpent motif of Portuguese pharmacies be directly attributed to this colonial-era transfer of materials and ideas between Europe and the tropical world? It certainly seems that way to me, although I acknowledge that the link is largely circumstantial.

What is more certain is that the larger culture of drug use in Portugal and its colonies was strongly shaped by indigenous American and African influences. Although today the contents of a pharmacy are divided from the domain of recreational drug use by formidable cultural and legal boundaries, this was not the case in the seventeenth century. This was a time when apothecaries freely dispensed opium, tobacco, alcohol and even cannabis alongside more familiar remedies like chamomile tea. And it is here, in the etymologies of three familiar words associated with recreational drugs, that the influence of the colonies upon Portuguese drug culture is most apparent.

Unlike other speakers of Romance languages, who typically puff on tubos or pipes, Lusophones smoke from cachimbos, a term derived from the word kixima in the Kimbundu language of West Central Africa. (This is an especially intriguing etymological origin because pipes are typically thought of as being introduced to Europeans via indigenous Americans, not Africans). From colonial times to the present, at least some of those who used cachimbos were filling them not with tobacco but with maconha, i.e. cannabis, derived from the Kimbundu makaña.

And perhaps they washed this down with a fortifying swig of jerebita, now known as cachaça or sugar-cane liquor, which, according to the historian João Azevedo Fernandes, has a not entirely unexpected point of origin: “the word jerebita very probably originated from the Tupi word jeribá, a species of palm tree.”