Variable Matters (Basel, 20-22 September 2019), organized by Barbara Orland and Stefanie Gänger

By Stefanie Gänger

Hosted at Basel’s beautiful Pharmacy Museum, the conference “Variable Matters” was designed to bring together historians with an interest in the movement of medicinals and knowledge about them between and across societies in the world of the ‘long’ eighteenth century. Participants talked about very different kinds of substances – vanilla, calomel, bezoars – and studied them in rather diverse contexts – anything from the Swiss Alps to the Bolivian Andes – but everyone was reflecting, in one way or another, on the subjects of medicine trade, therapeutic exchange, and epistemic brokerage.

Several speakers engaged with one or another aspect of the communication of medical knowledge about foreign or unfamiliar ‘simples’ to other cultural imaginaries, medical localities, and therapeutic traditions. Quite a few papers dealt with the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ‘exotic’. Emma Spary, in a public keynote lecture, discussed the introduction of vanilla to France. Vanilla, originally from the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain, was becoming familiar in France from the late 1600s, and the talk focused on the various issues – of translation, transport, and taste – involved in moving the plant and knowledge about it across vast expanses of space. In another paper, we heard about the growing consumption of tea in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Low Countries from Marieke Hendriksen, who was just starting a new project on the role of subjective experience and taste in the acquisition and communication of knowledge about ‘new’, exotic materia medica. Hjalmar Fors’ talk, in turn, discussed the constraints that Europeans operated under in their encounter with ‘exotic’ plants more broadly – what they deemed worth knowing, or valuable about them, on account of those constraints – and on the botanical and (al-)chemical practices that would reduce them to a semblance of – European – order.

The delegates of the conference

Other papers discussed the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ancient, or artisanal. Francesco Luzzini spoke of the Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri’s interest in ‘popular’ therapeutics, including his inquiries into the mineral remedies in use among miners, and artisans. Laurence Totelin, in turn, talked about the reception and critique of ancient antidotes like mithridatium and theriac in the eighteenth century, through treatises like William Heberden’s 1745 Antitheriaca. Heberden also figured in other talks, especially in Chris Duffin’s, which explored the contents of eighteenth-century medical chests – including Heberden’s teaching cabinet – that encompassed anything from Mesoamerican cochineal to album graecum.

Other papers engaged with the relationship between homegrown, or ‘indigenous’, medicines and novel, unfamiliar substances. Silvia Flubacher, in a paper co-authored with Simona Boscani, talked about the eighteenth-century market in ‘German bezoars’ extracted from Swiss chamois, or goats, a medical commodity that emerged in reaction to overprized exotic bezoars, as part of a discursive revaluation of the ‘local’. Other speakers engaged with ‘their’ substances’ ontological instability, the many acts of adaptation, customizing and calibration a medical substance’s journeys might entail. Irina Podgorny’s talk in particular, focusing on the example of eagle stones – hollow geode stones worn as amulets with a longstanding reputation for protecting pregnant women, or comforting women grieving the loss of a child – discussed not only shifts in the stones’ nomenclature and therapeutic indications as they travelled from Europe to Spanish America; it also studied how the very name – ‘eagle stone’ – was transferred to various objects that were concomitantly attributed analogous properties: to American fossils, and pietists collections of prayers alike.

Other speakers focused on the formats used to convey medical knowledge. Clare Griffin presented a paper on the gradual incorporation of American herbal medicines into Russian recipes over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Matthew J. Eddy delivered a paper on a series of medical consultation letters between the prominent Edinburgh physician William Cullen and a Quaker woman, and the ensuing give-and-take of their negotiations over the proper medicines. Sabrina Minuzzi’s paper, in turn, studied the correspondence and publications – cheap pamphlets, in the majority – of Johannes Behm (c. 1640–1731), or Giovanni Beni, a physician, plant collector and broker who moved knowledge about medicinals and therapeutic practices around, especially between northern and southern Europe, but also with the East Indies, owing to his contacts with merchants, plant traders and botanists alike.

The Basel Pharmacy Museum.

In-between papers, we had the privilege of a guided tour of the Pharmacy Museum by the organizer, Barbara Orland, and the museum’s acting director, Philippe Wanner, who did their very best guiding a bunch of excited specialists through the collection (what with everyone chatting excitedly, and constantly getting side-tracked, by charred monkey skulls, preserved seahorses, or actual eagle stones!).

Masdevall’s ‘Antipyretic Opiate’, or: A Well-Travelled Recipe

By Stefanie Gänger

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, not only were medicinal substances exchanged across large distances along the veins of global trade, proselytizing, and imperialism, so too were recipes – practices and discourses about how to prepare or arrange substances, render them palatable, or more ‘effective’.

A case in point from the Iberian world are Masdevall’s ‘Antipyretic Opiate (opiate antifebril)’, a remedy named after its inventor, Joseph Masdevall (? – 1801), who devised it, according to his 1786 Account (Relación de las epidemias de calenturas pútridas y malignas, que en estos últimos años se han padecido en el Principado de Cataluña)’ in the context of his efforts to combat an epidemic of ‘putrid and malignant fevers’ in Aragón and Catalonia between 1783 and 1785[i]. Consisting of absinthe salt, ammoniac salt, stibiated tartar, emetic tartar as well as ‘Peruvian bark’ (cinchona), the ‘opiate’ was to be administered in a ‘sufficient quantity of absinth syrup’, and to be preceded by a purgative comprising various antimonial wines to ‘purify the sufferer’s blood’ as well as ‘viper water (aqua viperina)’ and either cream of tartar, confection of hyacinth, or Sal-Policrest, a sulphate salt.

 

Figure 1Credited, and celebrated, for subduing the epidemic, Masdevall and his ‘method’ immediately gained fame at home and, soon after, abroad. The ‘opiate’ was prepared, and administered throughout Spain and its empire, by physicians, military surgeons, hospital orderlies as well as – so it will seem from popular medical advice manuals such as Tomás Canals’s 1800 Domestic Treatise (Tratado doméstico)’, designed to ‘enlighten’ the inhabitants of Lima with ‘some (medical) knowledge’ householders, from the Bay of Gibraltar to the Viceroyalty of Peru. Italian and German translations of Masdevall’s ‘Account’ – the 1789 Relazione dell’epidemia sofferte nel Principato di Catalogna nell’anno 1783, and the 1792 Bericht über die Epidemien von faulen und bösartigen Fiebern welche in den letzten Jahren im Fürstenthum Catalonien geherrscht haben – spread the word to the Italian peninsula and the Holy Roman Empire, and news of the ‘curious medicine’, as Joseph Townsend phrased it in his 1791 Journey through Spain, also swiftly reached England and its growing Empire. The first French edition of Masdevall’s ‘Account’, the Medicines, or a Digest of the Method of Mr. Masdevall (Medicamens, et précis de la méthode de Mr. Masdevall), was published in New Orleans in 1796, then formally under Spanish rule, rather than in metropolitan France – presumably because epidemics of fevers were perpetually haunting the soggy terrain of Louisiana at the time. Nor did the recipe halt at boundaries of creed, or religious belief: when an epidemic was raging in the sultanate of Morocco in 1799 – particularly in Tangier, Meknes and Tétouan –, the Moroccan ‘Alawi court eventually chose to combat the ‘pestilence’ with the aid of Masdevall’s ‘method’.[ii]

While the recipe for the ‘opiate’ travelled far, it does appear that its preparation and administration retained, in some measure, a sense of place. Whereas the foreign-language editions of Masdevall’s Account generally contained literal, accurate translations of his ‘method’, manuscript recipe collections kept by men and women in the Swiss Confederation, the Italian territories or the Kingdom of France often encompassed abridged, or modified, versions of the original formula, presumably in line with a sufferer’s palate, belief, or means. A French recipe for ‘opiate’ ‘against the fevers’ contained betony syrup, in addition to cinchona, absinth salt, ammoniac salt, and vitriolated tartar (Wellcome Library / MS 4087); a Graubünden manuscript comprised a recipe for ‘opiate febrifuge’ consisting of absinth salt, cinchona, antimonial substances, absinth syrup and confection of hyacinth, as well as theriac, centaury salt, and gentian (Archiv für Medizingeschichte Zurich / MS J 4). Occasionally, alterations presumably responded to the practitioners’ creed: the Moroccan ‘Alawi court, for instance, insisted that the wine included in the recipe recipe ‘be replaced with vinegar’[iii].

The pervasiveness, and swiftness with which ‘Masdevall’s Opiate’ became popular, imposed identifiable modes of medical administration, and aligned therapeutic practices, in places as distant as Tangier and New Orleans, as Graubünden and Lima, speaks to how, for some healers and sufferers at least, the medical world had long become more cohesive and unified, and an altogether ‘smaller place’, by the late 1700s and early 1800s. This is not to say that the medical and pharmaceutical repertoire did not, in some measure, remain contingent; it is to say however, that the journeys of ‘well-travelled’ recipes like Masdevall’s ‘Antipyretic Opiate’ transcended, and fragmented, not just the boundaries of professional and lay healing, and of public health and popular, domestic medicine, but also those of Northern European, or Protestant, Islamic, and Iberian, or Catholic, medical practice.

I am still at the beginning of my research on the journeys of Masdevall and his ‘Antipyretic Opiate’ but I hope to have excited your curiosity; I will report more as the project progresses.

[i] For biographical information on Joseph – or José – Masdevall, Juan Riera Palmero, Juan Masdeval y la medicina española ilustrada. Enseñanza, epidemias y guerra a finales del siglo XVIII  (Valladolid: Secretariado de Publicaciones, 1980).

[ii] Braulio Justel Calabozo, “El doctor Masdevall. Protomédico del sultán Marroquí Muley Solimán,” Al-Andalus – Magreb II(1994): 180.

[iii] Ibid. 175.

“A very secure recipe for the cure of all kinds of tertian and quartan fevers”: Medicine and Malaria in Late-Colonial Lima

Albarello drug jar used for cinchona bark, Spain, 1731-1770. Image Credit: L0057419 Science Museum, London © Wellcome Images
Albarello drug jar used for cinchona bark, Spain, 1731-1770. Image Credit: L0057419 Science Museum, London © Wellcome Images

Stefanie Gänger

“Squeeze a serving of bitter oranges”, advised “The True Physician” (El Médico Verdadero), a manuscript recipe collection dated Lima 1771, “strain the juice through a canvas” and “blend that in a clean glazed pot with the same amount of pure water and with four ounces of white sugar”. “Bring that to a boil over the fire, then remove the (…) foam with a spoon (…) and when the decoction is clean you let it seethe a little longer and then remove it from the heat, let it cool, and (…) then add the amount of powdered cinchona they sell in the pharmacy for one real, or two adarmes of the said powder (…), tossing the decoction until it is well blended”. Taken “the day of the fever”, the recipe concluded, this was a most “secure” remedy “for the cure of all kinds of tertian and quartan fevers”. (1)

“The True Physician” is one of a handful of manuscript recipe collections from Lima and its environs that have survived into our present – in archives, private libraries or, as in this particular case, as transcriptions made by early-twentieth century historians. Virtually all of them contain one or several medicines against “tertian and quartan fevers” – afflictions that can retrospectively be diagnosed as plasmodium vivax and plasmodium malariae infections, forms of malaria that haunted the viceregal capital throughout the colonial period. Both vivax and malariae are nonfatal and more benign than the tropical form of malaria, falciparum, but both have relapses as their signature dynamic: large sectors of the Lima population in the late-colonial period would have been accustomed to suffering from bouts of malaria – chills and rigors that extend through febrile paroxysms every 48 or 72 hours – frequently in the course of their lives.

A number of publications in circulation in the city, from the yearly almanac to health advice manuals, counselled Lima’s inhabitants on how to prevent malarial fevers or afford relief if they struck. The anonymous author of “The True Physician” – the manuscript is only signed “un curioso, a term that referred broadly to persons who practised medicine without a medical degree – appears to have been an avid reader, particularly of the latter format. He had copied several passages from Manuel Gutierrez de los Rios’s handbook version of Francisco Solano de Luque’s 1732 Lapis Lydos Apollinis and of Benito Jerónimo Feijóo y Montenegro’s enlightened Teatro Crítico Universal (1726-1739), though he also adopted advice on nutriments from Ioannes Bruyerinus Campegius and cited a series of treatises on medicinal plants, from Pedanius Dioscorides and Ibn Masawaih to Hieronymus Bock. He probably belonged to the upper stratum of Spanish or elite Indian society in late-colonial Lima, the handful of men and women sufficiently well-off to be able to afford a medical library and not to mind spending a real or two on remedies. Possibly he was a householder, though one who felt called to dispense his knowledge beyond the circle of his family, to the men and women working on his estate and, occasionally – as transpires from his remarks – the priest of the local parish.

Though he cited profusely throughout the collection, the curioso also picked up ideas for recipes in conversation – orange juice to ease bladder irritations, for instance, from a story he heard about “the lawyer Casasola” who had “recovered from strangury accidentally just by eating sweet oranges”. He cited neither written nor oral authority, however, for his reliance on cinchona in the “very secure recipe”, perhaps because the bark was a widely shared empirical tradition by the late-eighteenth century. Cinchona had been part of Andean pharmacopeia long before it entered European materia medica in the mid-seventeenth century and a century later was administered by titled physicians, Indian healers and householders alike in Lima. The curioso found cinchona was a strikingly “infallible and certain” cure against malaria and so it was: the bark contains natural alkaloids that interfere with the growth and reproduction of the malarial parasites in the red blood cells and its administration would have afforded prompt relief from malarial fever. The bark requires no specific mode of preparation to unfold its curative properties. The reason behind the proliferation of culinary variations – especially sugary fruit concoctions – we find in medical notebooks like “The True Physician” presumably lay in the difficulty of getting a weakened sufferer to swallow the bark: cinchona tastes by all accounts sickeningly bitter.

I am still at the very beginning of my “Malaria and Medicine in Lima” project but I hope to have excited your anticipation; I will report more as the project progresses.

(1)    Receta muy segura para la curación de toda suerte de tercianas y quartanas de que siempre se han experimentado maravillosos efectos (1777), in: El Medico verdadero. Prontuario singular de varios selectisimos remedios, para los diversos males à que està expuesto el Cuerpo humano desde el instante que nace. You’ll find this and other Lima recipes transcribed in volume three of La medicina popular peruana, ed. Hermilio Valdizán and Angel Maldonado (Lima: Imprenta Torres Aguirre, 1922).