Tag Archives: thematic series

Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. Every Thursday, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These four features are just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Matteo Martelli

Ancient recipes are usually short texts; one can easily find more than one recipe written on a single papyrus sheet or on the page of a Byzantine manuscript. Despite their brevity, however, they open an invaluable window onto a wide array of techniques and practices used to manipulate the natural world. Ancient recipes could pertain to various fields of science and technology — from cosmetics to cookery, from agriculture to horse care. In this post, particular attention will be devoted to two contiguous and, to a certain extent, overlapping areas of expertise: medicine and alchemy. As we will see, the works of two important authors, Oribasius and Zosimus of Panopolis, reveal the ways that recipe collections forged new forms of knowledge transfer in the fourth century CE.

In antiquity, medical recipes were easily exchanged among experts. Physicians used to send letters containing recipes to each other, as evident in Graeco-Roman papyri. Moreover, recipes were sold to people interested in specific formulas. And they could be quite pricey! In the second century CE, for example, a friend of famous physician Galen of Pergamum (second-early third century CE) was ready to spend over a hundred gold pieces to purchase highly valued recipes, some of which were preserved in “two folded parchment volumes.”[i] About a century earlier, the Roman physician Scribonius Largus (mid-first century CE) referred to the price of valuable formulas he had included in his Compositiones for a powerful drug against abdominal pains or an antidote made of hyena skin.[ii]

We can safely infer that recipes were collected in Antiquity. They were shifting atoms of knowledge that could be disseminated in a variety of treatises of different genres or simply piled into collections of variable length. The accumulation of technical knowledge could produce recipe books, usually in the form of lists or compilations of (often anonymous) recipes. Papyri offer strong, albeit fragmentary evidence for this process. A telling example is a fourth-century medical book usually referred to as The Michigan Medical Codex, which consists of thirteen leaves containing formulas for different plasters and salves.[iii] In a codex format, the papyrus has been identified as a manual copied for a practicing physician, who in some cases corrected the text or even expanded it by adding personal notes and recipes in the margins. In the alchemical field, two well-known examples of recipe books written in codex form are the so-called Leiden and Stockholm papyri (third-fourth century CE), which have been variously linked to workshop practices (Figure 1). They were defined either as handbooks for ancient craftsmen (e.g. goldsmiths, dyers) or as copies of the workshop notes of an artisan.[iv] The two papyri include more than two hundred recipes on how to dye metals, stones, and textiles (wool in most cases).[v]

Figure 1. Leaf from the Stockholm papyrus, freely available at the Word Digital Library: http://www.wdl.org/en/item/14299/
Figure 1. Leaf from the Stockholm papyrus, freely available at the Word Digital Library: http://www.wdl.org/en/item/14299/

These kinds of recipe books could be quite difficult to navigate, due to their lack of structure and fluid arrangement of the collected material. Readers often find no guidelines to assist them in the difficult task of locating specific procedures and techniques in a given collection. Moreover, these compilations often provide no information about the criteria for selecting and accumulating recipes. Important questions remain difficult to answer: to what extent does collected information correspond with the state and characteristics of a given discipline? How exhaustive is the selected material? To what extent were these collections used as reference works? Or were they local, produced by a single workshop or a scholar in contact with a small circle of artisans? What kinds of authority did the authors or compilers of ancient recipe books rely upon in selecting instructions to be included in their collections?

The three “manuals” or “handbooks” mentioned so far (the Michigan Medical Codex and the Leiden and Stockholm papyri) date to between the third and the fourth century CE, a moment of transition when “traditional” bodies of knowledge were inherited, selected, and re-organized. This cultural transfer and rearrangement of texts and practices had a strong effect on the ways that recipes were transmitted and organized. This is especially evident in the works of two almost contemporary authors: the so-called medical encyclopedia by Oribasius (fourth century CE), physician of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, and the alchemical books by the Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (third-fourth century CE).

Figure 2. Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, MS 3632 (f. 97v), 14th-15th century CE The physicians Oribasius (left) and Philippos (right) https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Oribasius-Pergamenus-left-having-a-conversation-with-the-ancient-Greek-physician_fig2_237147821
Figure 2. The physicians Oribasius (left) and Philippos (right). Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, MS 3632 (f. 97v), 14th-15th century CE. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Oribasius-Pergamenus-left-having-a-conversation-with-the-ancient-Greek-physician_fig2_237147821

On the one hand, these authors had to cope with an already rich and well-established tradition. Oribasius regularly exploited Galen’s huge medical corpus as well as the works of many other (less known) physicians. He extracted passages and quotations from earlier, authoritative writings and re-arranged them to build his own compendia. Even though less systematic, Zosimus’ approach to early authorities is equally dense. He constantly refers back to those figures of the first and second centuries CE who were identified as the founders of the alchemical art: Pseudo-Democritus, Maria the Jewess, and Pebichius, to name but a few.

On the other hand, Oribasius and Zosimus tried to provide as comprehensive a picture as possible of the disciplines they were committed to. In the introduction to his major compilation the Medical Collections, Oribasius spells out his aim “to seek through the most important writings of all the best authors and collect all that is of practical use to the very purpose of medicine.”[vi] Zosimus probably had a similar goal. According to the Byzantine lexicon Suda (Ζ 168 Adler; tenth century CE), he wrote an alchemical oeuvre in twenty-eight books. Regrettably, this work is no longer available in its original form, since only excerpts or kephalaia have been included in Byzantine manuscripts. However, one can get a glimpse of its structure by considering the twelve books preserved in Syriac translation, which I am currently editing and translating into English.[vii]

Both Oribasius and Zosimus shared a similar effort to systematize their fields. They were similarly committed to developing strategies in selecting and legitimizing the technical recipes they re-organized in their own works. A fresh comparison of their writings with the almost contemporary recipe books mentioned above can help to highlight these strategies. In fact, it is possible to track the movement of some recipes from the “manuals” on papyrus to the new, more exhaustive works of Oribasius and Zosimus.

Recipes were attributed to authoritative figures and organized in sections devoted to specific areas of expertise: the treatment of a single disease, for instance, or the description of a particular craft. Explanatory sections introduced the recipes, thus providing critical information for situating the copied procedures in a broader (either technical or theoretical) context. On the one hand, the combination of theoretical parts with bodies of recipes anticipates the structure of Latin alchemical handbooks in the Middle Ages.[viii] On the other hand, the tendency to be as exhaustive as possible could lead these authors to write vast treatises that were difficult to handle for a practicing physician or alchemist. Oribasius was certainly aware of this risk. He wrote a summary (Synopsis) of his Medical Collections for his son Eusthatius: “for when they (i.e. professional physicians) read what I have stated concisely and in outline, they will remember the whole of each field of knowledge, and without having to carry with them a heavy weight it will possible for them to be sufficiently equipped with what is needed in practice.”[ix] Meanwhile, Oribasius’ summary is presented as a kind of “portable” reference book. This perhaps suggests the meaning of modern terms “manual” or “handbook,” given that the Greek word encheiridion (usually translated as “manual, handbook”) never occurs in the texts considered here.

Exhaustiveness, acknowledgment of the authority of earlier authors, and clear organization of the material around key areas represented important goals in Oribasius and Zosimus’ works, which reorganized recipes that we find scattered in “manuals” on papyrus. They tried to secure medical and alchemical practices against the risk of being fragmented and dispersed in a variety of recipe books, thus producing crucial writings in the study and transmission of these disciplines.


[i] Galen, On Avoiding Distress (De indolentia), §§ 32-33, trans. Vivian Nutton in Peter N. Singer, Galen: Psychological Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 87.

[ii] Recipes 122 and 172 in Scribonius Largus, Compositiones, ed. Sergio Schonocchia (Leipzig: Teubner, 1983).

[iii] The extant fragments of this codex have been edited by the American papyrologist Louise C. Youtie in a series of articles for ZPE (Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik). Later on, these editions were republished in a single volume by Ann Hanson in Lousie C. Yountie, P. Michigan XVII, The Michigan Medical Codex (P. Mich. 758 = P. Mich. Inv. 21), ed. Ann Hanson (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996).

[iv] See, for example, Mark Clarke, “The Earliest Technical Recipes. Assyrian Recipes, Greek Chemical Treatises and the Mappae Clavicula Text Family,” in Craft Treatises and Handbooks: The Dissemination of Technical Knowledge in the Middle Ages, ed. Ricardo Córdoba (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), 9-32.

[v] Greek text and French translation in Robert Halleux, Papyrus de Leyden, papyrus de Stockholm, fragments de recettes (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1981). Both papyri were translated into English by Earle Radcliffe Caley: “The Leyden Papyrus X: An English Translation with Brief Notes,” Journal of Chemical Education 3.10 (October 1926): 1149-1166 and “The Stockholm Papyrus: An English Translation with Brief Notes,” Journal of Chemical Education 4.8 (August 1927): 979-1002. A reprint of both translations (edited by William B. Jensen) is available here.

[vi] Oribasius, Medical Collections, introduction (CMG VI.1,1, p. 4 Raeder). English translation in Philip van der Eijk, “Principles and Practices of Compilation and Abbreviation in the Medical ‘Encyclopaedias’ of Late Antiquity,” in Condensing Texts – Condensed Texts, eds. Marietta Horster and Christiane Reitz (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010), 526.

[vii] For a French translation of extensive sections of these Syriac books, see Marcelin Berthelot, Rubens Duval, La chimie au Moyen-Âge, Vol. 2: L’alchimie syriaque (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1893), 210-266.

[viii] These are so-called medieval pratica, a well-organized description of series of procedures opened by a general introduction and often complemented by a theoretical part (theorica). See Robert Halleux, Les textes alchimiques (Turnhout: Brepols, 1979), 80-81.

[ix] Oribasius, Synopsis, introduction (CMG VI.3, p. 5 Raeder). Translation in Eijk, “Principles and Practices of Compilation,” 529.

[7] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 134.


Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.

Vicissitudes in Soldering. Reading and Working with a Historical Gold- and Silversmithing Manual

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next four Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These four features are just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Thijs Hagendijk and Tonny Beentjes

In 1721, the Dutch craftsman Willem van Laer (1674-1722) published a Guidebook for Upcoming Gold- and Silversmiths. Intended as a manual to educate young novices, the Guidebook discussed a variety of different practices, techniques, and skills that ranged from assays to determine the quality of precious metals to sand mold casting and polishing (Figure 1). Four different editions, including one pirated copy, appeared in less than fifty years, attesting to its popularity. The book was explicitly aimed at teaching young readers how to do and make things. Van Laer reassured readers by saying “there will be few young gold- or silversmiths, who won’t find anything to their liking and benefit while reading this book; they will be led by hand to the knowledge of many things.”[1] Yet, however confident Van Laer might come across in this passage, there is sufficient reason to question the actual success of Guidebook at explaining and delivering these skills. Practical knowledge is often better demonstrated than written down. Van Laer was very well aware of this fact and offered disclaimers warning his readers that full comprehension of the text was only achieved when complemented with manual instruction. This begs the question of what could, in fact, be learned from the Guidebook.

Figure 1. Title page of the Guidebook. Copy held by the Rijksmuseum Research Library, Amsterdam. (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 1. Title page of the Guidebook. Copy held by the Rijksmuseum Research Library, Amsterdam. (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

The best way to answer this question is to look at historical evidence, primarily in the form of marginalia or other signs of usage, that indicates how the Guidebook was read and used on the shop floor. Unfortunately, not much of this evidence has survived for reasons that historians Natasha Glaisyer and Sara Pennell have observed in their study of early modern didactic literature. They note an irony in the fact that books that were most read and used did not make it to our libraries.[2] Indeed, most Guidebooks that reside in Dutch libraries are neat and almost spotless copies – we even found a copy with its pages still uncut! (We ended up cutting its pages almost three hundred years after publication, but that is another story). This virtual lack of historical evidence pushed us in a different direction. We decided to approach the Guidebook experimentally by performing historical re-enactments. By reading and working with the text as if we were learning how to make and do things, we were able to get a better grasp of Van Laer’s potential audience and the role the book might have played in historical learning practices and the acquisition of practical skills. The re-enactments gave rise to various insights.[3] In this post, we discuss one specific result, which is a story involving both success and failure.

Part of Van Laer’s discussion of soldering features the introduction of a “convenient soldering lamp.” Even though the better part of soldering usually happened in the forge, Van Laer presents his soldering lamp so that “the maker won’t need to put the entire piece back into the fire for a tiny leak or mistake only.”[4] For a silversmith, putting a soldered piece back into the fire was always risky as the soldered joints could melt again and cause more trouble than initially was the case. The preferable method was to repair a soldered piece without having to expose it again to relatively high temperatures, which is where the soldering lamp comes in. Basically, the soldering lamp resembles a modified oil lamp with an extended snout. To reach temperatures high enough to melt the solder, one had to use a small blowpipe to blow additional air through the flame. Skillful blowing would subsequently result in a second tiny yet feisty blue flame hot enough to locally melt silver. That is, at least, what Van Laer seemed to suggest: “when the tip of the flame of such burning Lamp is blown against the spot that needs to be soldered, it makes it hotter over there and the solder will easily run.”[5]

Figure 2. Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 2. Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

To find out whether we could indeed solder this way, we decided to build a soldering lamp following Van Laer’s instructions. Luckily, Van Laer was meticulously detailed with respect to the lamp, discussing its dimensions and the materials needed to produce it. According to him, the lamp should be made from brass and should measure 3 inches across and 1 inch in height. Additionally, there should be a wooden handle at its back and at the front a snout of about 5 or 6 inches long. To make sure he was well understood, Van Laer also included a schematic engraving of the lamp (Figure 2). We had more than enough information to work with, and based on his drawings and instructions we produced a much-desired replica of the lamp (Figure 3). We also laid our hands on a few historical blowpipes. Now that we had the materials, we could learn to handle the tool.

Figure 2 (Detail). Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 2 (Detail). Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.


Figure 3. Replica of the soldering lamp. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 3. Replica of the soldering lamp. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.


We filled the lamp’s reservoir with olive oil and stuffed its snout with a cotton lump. When we finally lit the lamp, the burning oil filled the room with a scent of grilled food. As an initial exercise, we took a small brass strip and tried to heat it until it started to glow. Here is how it went down, as recorded by Thijs in our fieldnotes:

Glowing the metal strip did not happen before we learned our first big lesson. Intuitively, Tonny and I started out by blowing hard through the blowpipe. The more air, the hotter the flame we thought. After trying for quite some time, it seemed as if we weren’t making any progress. We could steer the yellow flame, but were not able to get the blue flame where we wanted it. Yet, after I tried some more, it suddenly appeared that I had been blowing way too hard. By blowing rather softly on to the flame, suddenly the little blue flame emerged. In general, the blowing required much exercise. When later that afternoon a visitor dropped by for an interview, we saw the amount of skill that we already acquired. She too tried to produce a feisty blue flame by blowing through the flame, but did not succeed. To my own surprise, I was immediately able to point out what went wrong. The tip of the blowpipe should almost touch the pit of the flame, while one should blow out of the flame, both from beneath and from the inside-out. Cheeks filled with air, meanwhile breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out, filling the cheeks again and keep blowing at the same time. A rhythm occurs in blowing and breathing, which maybe most resembles what happens to your breathing when running.(Fieldnotes Thijs, April 4th, 2017).

Until this point, then, the story was quite successful. We were able to reverse-engineer the soldering lamp, and, like Van Laer explained, we could reproduce the feisty blue flame. Moreover, the blue flame proved rather hot indeed, as indicated by the different oxidation colors on the brass strip. However, as soon as we tried taking it to the next level, we ran into trouble.

Still happy with the progress we made, we now wanted to solder a very basic joint. We took another brass strip, hammered it round, and set out to solder its ends together to make a tiny cylinder. We fixed the cylinder in a standing pair of tweezers to free both our hands so we could steer the soldering lamp and hold the blowpipe. A little piece of solder was put on top of the joint, as well as little bit of borax, which is a flux used to facilitate the flow of melted solder. We lit the lamp and started blowing (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Soldering a brass ring. Note the tiny blue flame. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 4. Soldering a brass ring. Note the tiny blue flame. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

One hour later we were so out of breath that we stopped, but the cylinder had not yet been soldered. We failed. Even though we raised the temperature high enough to make the solder curl up like a drop, we never reached the final state in which it flows out and runs into the joint. Using the soldering lamp appeared less straightforward than we thought it would be.

We were curious to know what went wrong, but after several more days of trial-and-error, the list of questions and issues had only grown. We turned to the Guidebook and read and re-read the passages, only to discover that Van Laer was actually quite silent on the matter. Indeed, he carefully described how to assemble the soldering lamp, but spent hardly any time on how to handle it in practice. Should the object be pre-heated, or could the soldering lamp be used on cold objects, too? We blew and soldered against a piece of charcoal to create a reverberating heat source, but was this also how Van Laer meant to use the soldering lamp? Moreover, what type of solder should we use? Van Laer listed three distinct recipes for solder with different melting points, but did not indicate which one to use in combination with the soldering lamp. To date, we still have not been able to solder a proper joint using the lamp.

Interestingly, if we compare the above experiences with other re-enactments we performed, a general pattern starts to emerge.[6] For example, with respect to sand mold casting, Van Laer vividly described how to prepare and process the sand, but left his readers hanging when it came time to assemble a mold from it. Moreover, in his discussion of chasing, he meticulously described how to transfer a design to silver, but gave no guidance on how to perform the actual chasing process. Why would Van Laer alternate between exacting detail and virtual silence? What does this say about the usability of the book? And what could, in fact, be learned from this text?

The soldering story followed a similar pattern. While Van Laer carefully discussed each and every condition needed to succeed – the soldering lamp, recipes to prepare multiple types of solder, different sorts of fluxes – we failed once we arrived at the procedure itself. Is this due to our lack of skill in operating the blowpipe and soldering lamp, or are there aspects of eighteenth-century soldering that we no longer understand? In any case, the Guidebook’s guiding principle seems to be that core operations are best demonstrated rather than put into words. Van Laer did in fact confirm this with respect to the casting procedure. Just as he came to the very heart of the procedure, he abandoned his detailed exposition, stating that “the molding and casting cannot be learned as well as through manual education.”[7]

During our re-enactments, we therefore came to interpret the Guidebook as a text containing advanced practical knowledge, including tips, tricks, and best practices. Learning new skills from scratch, such as soldering, casting, or chasing, is still best done through manual education, but once mastered, the Guidebook can indicate new routes, spell out different paths, and show new variations on a theme.


[1] Willem van Laer, Weg-wyzer Voor Aankoomende Goud en Zilversmeden: Verhandelende veele wetenschappen, die Konsten raakende, zeer nut voor alle Jonge Goud en Zilversmeeden (Amsterdam: Fredrik Helm, 1721).

[2] Natasha Glaisyer and Sara Pennell, “Introduction,” in Didactic Literature in England 1500-1800, edited by Natasha Glaisyer, Sara Pennell (London: Ashgate, 2003), 7.

[3] For a more elaborate and contextualized overview of the re-enactments performed on the Guidebook, see Thijs Hagendijk, “Learning a Craft from Books. Historical Re-enactment of Functional Reading in Gold- and Silversmithing,” Nuncius 33, no. 2 (forthcoming Summer 2018).

[4] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 125.

[5] Ibid, 126.

[6] Hagendijk, “Learning a Craft from Books.”

[7] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 134.

Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.

Recipes for Recombining DNA. A History of Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next four Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These four features are  just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Angela N.H. Creager

Since Warren Weaver coined the term “molecular biology” in the late 1930s, technological innovation has driven the life sciences, from the analytical ultracentrifuge to high-throughput DNA sequencing. Within this long history, the invention of recombinant DNA techniques in the early 1970s proved to be especially pivotal. The ability to manipulate DNA consolidated the high-profile focus on molecular genetics, a trend underway since Watson and Crick’s double-helical model in 1953. But the ramifications of this technology extended far beyond investigating heredity itself. Biologists doing research on a wide variety of molecules, including enzymes, hormones, muscle proteins, RNAs, as well as chromosomal DNA, could harness genetic engineering to copy the gene that encoded their molecule of interest, from whatever organism they worked on, and put that copy in a bacterial cell, from which it might be expressed, purified, and characterized. Many life scientists who wanted to use recombinant DNA techniques were not trained in molecular biology. They sought technical know-how on their own in order to bring their labs into the vanguard of gene cloners. Manuals became a key part of this dissemination of expertise.

What did it mean to clone a gene? Simply put, cloning is copying, and a gene is usually copied onto a vector that can replicate in a cell, so that the copied gene can be propagated and studied. In seeking to make copies of genes and move them around from organism to organism, biologists were inspired by bacteria, whose ability to exchange genetic material had been recognized in 1946 by Joshua Lederberg and Edward Tatum. It turned out that there were numerous genetic units that enabled gene exchange in bacteria, including lysogenic viruses and fertility factors. In 1952 Lederberg christened the entities “plasmids.”

By the 1960s, researchers were using these naturally-occurring gene shuttles in microbes to identify, map, and characterize bacterial genes.[1] Unsurprisingly, many biologists were more interested in tracking genes found in humans and other “higher organisms” (eukaryotes—plants, animals, and fungi—as opposed to the one-celled prokaryotes, mostly bacteria). The discovery of bacterial restriction enzymes, which sever DNA strands at specific base-pair combinations, inspired molecular biologists to attempt to use these as microscopic scissors. In principle, if a researcher could identify and locate a particular eukaryotic gene, she could use a restriction enzyme to “cut” it out of chromosomal DNA and insert it into a circular bacterial plasmid (Figure 1). Cloning eukaryotic genes was an immensely difficult task, and several early attempts faltered. Other efforts did not go forward due to the potential public health hazards of placing genes from widely-studied tumor viruses into E. coli, a bacterium that usually inhabits the gut of humans. No one knew whether exposure to bacteria toting these tumor-associated genes could give people cancer.

Figure 1. Image and caption from Congress of the US, Office of Technology Assessment, Impacts of Applied Genetics: Micro-Organisms, Plants, Animals (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office), 5. Public Domain.

In 1973, a group of scientists at UCSF and Stanford, led by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, succeeded in placing a copy of a frog gene (one that encoded ribosomal RNA) into a bacterial plasmid. Not only was the inserted gene on its plasmid vector taken up and replicated by E. coli, but also the foreign DNA was expressed into the corresponding product RNA. Their 1974 publication became the much-cited proof that genes from a higher organism could be cloned and expressed in a bacterium.

Few scientists, however, had the specialized materials with which to achieve such a feat. Richard Roberts at Cold Spring Harbor discovered and purified many of the restriction enzymes essential for this work. He recalls that “Summer visitors would stop by with a tube of their favorite DNA in their pocket, just to see if we had an enzyme that would convert it into some useful fragments.” Unable to persuade his own institution to start manufacturing and selling restriction enzymes, Roberts helped the newly-founded New England Biolabs corner this market. The first company catalog was issued in 1975; their enzymes became indispensable to the early gene cloners. Biologists who worked on bacteria were able to rapidly exploit these newly commercialized enzymes and customized plasmids, so that the cloning of genes from microbes took off.

However, cloning of genes from higher organisms remained in the hands of the experts who could make the difficult techniques work. In 1977, Shirley Tilghman and other members of Philip Leder’s group cloned the first mammalian genes from mice.[2] In addition to academic researchers, biotech entrepreneurs were keenly interested in cloning eukaryotic genes. Simply obtaining genetic material from higher organisms in a form that could be searched for a specific gene was a formidable challenge. Tom Maniatis, part of the group that cloned the first human gene, created a human genomic “library” and shared it with other biologists.[3] But researchers also needed protocols and know-how. Courses (for practitioners, not only university students) became a popular way to meet this demand.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory had been offering summer courses on new laboratory techniques since the 1940s. One popular course, “Advanced Bacterial Genetics,” already offered researchers a chance to learn how to identify, map, and copy genes from prokaryotes. In 1980, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) began offering a postgraduate summer course called “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes.” James Watson, director of CSHL, asked Maniatis to teach this course, and others joined the effort. Nancy Hopkins, who had taught a tumor virology course that had just ended, stayed on for the cloning course. Ed Fritsch, a postdoc in Maniatis’s lab, put together the laboratory materials, and Helen Donis-Keller and Catherine O’Connell served as course assistants.[4]

The coursebook was made up of “consensus protocols” defining the field at the time (many of which were already circulating informally).[5] Upon advertising the postgraduate training course, “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes,” more than 300 applied to take it. Only sixteen students could enroll. Watson immediately saw the opportunity to make cloning know-how available to a wider base of users through publication. Issuing an instructional guide from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory would further consolidate the institution’s reputation for being at the vanguard of molecular biology—and there was already a tradition there of publishing course manuals as books.

Figure 2. Cover of Tom Maniatis, Ed Fritsch, and Joe Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1982). Author photo.

Watson wanted Maniatis on the team of authors, as his reputation in cloning genes was already formidable. But he had recently moved to Caltech, where he was busy chairing an NIH study section and running his own lab. He only agreed to prepare a manual based on the course if he had significant help.[6] Watson persuaded Joe Sambrook, a long-time tumor virologist at the lab, to join the effort. Although Sambrook had not taught the summer course, he did have extensive relevant knowledge, and he would do a lion’s share of the manual-writing.[7] Fritsch, who was about to leave for a tenure-track faculty position at Michigan State University, remained involved with the project having helped teach the course twice.[8] In the end, the collaboration was productive, and the first edition was published in 1982 (Figure 2). Maniatis handed off teaching of the “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes” summer course at CSHL to others the same year as the manual came out.

The three authors explain in the Preface that because “the manual was originally written to serve as a guide to those who had little experience in molecular cloning, it contains much basic material.”[9] Indeed, the book was full of both recipes and tips. That said, part of its success, according to one early user, was that it communicated enough about the science behind the recipes that users were able to trouble-shoot the problems they ran into.[10] And part of the utility of the book was that, by virtue of its plastic-ring binding, it could be laid flat on a laboratory bench [11] (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Pages 92 and 93 of Maniatis, Fritsch, and Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual. One can see how the book is spiral bound so it lays flat when open. Author photo.


Just as Watson had suspected, Molecular Cloning met widespread demand. There were orders for more than 5000 copies before the publication date. Consequently, the press sold 5113 copies the first month of its appearance, in July 1982 (as compared with its original number for sales projected by the press: 210 copies). In August 988 copies were sold, in September 2487, in October 1863, and in November 768. That fall, Molecular Cloning was outselling every other book in the press’s line-up.[12] As a reviewer for the British Society for Developmental Biology put it, “no laboratory with any serious interest in molecular biology of development and their [sic] cloning should be without it.”[13] By late June 1983, more than 18,000 copies had been sold.[14] Plans for a second edition, initially scheduled for 1984, were already underway.[15] The second edition, which actually appeared in 1989, was received just as enthusiastically as the first. As a reviewer in Nature put it,

Few molecular biologists welcome publication of any of the many protocol books that promise to be the single source for their laboratory methods. For the most part, such laboratory methods fall far short of this goal. So why the excitement surrounding the long-awaited second edition of the classic guide, Molecular Cloning, which first appeared in 1982? The original version immediately filled the need for an anthology of laboratory procedures pertinent to the emerging field of recombinant DNA. With the 545-page spiral-bound paperback in hand, virtually any experimentalist could make a stab at cloning and have a reasonable expectation of success.[16]

Figure 4. Frederick M. Ausubel, Roger Brent, Robert E. Kingston, David D. Moore, J. G. Seidman, John A. Smith, and Kevin Struhl, eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, vol. 1 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987). Author photo.

In short, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory publication became the canonical manual—or “Bible”—for gene cloners. Extending this common metaphor, one biochemist made reference to “those who daily workshop the Cold Spring Harbor idol.”[17] But the deity had rivals. Its strongest competitor was Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, introduced in 1987 by a group of researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital.[18] Sarah Greene was the original publisher, but the series was soon bought by Wiley. Rather than being written by three authors, this manual was produced by an entire team of scientists, who contributed individual pieces on various techniques. In addition, Current Protocols had a very different way of dealing with the rapid growth (and obsolescence) of techniques—the book was designed to be expanded via subscription. Through a quarterly update service, subscribers received supplements to insert into the original loose-leaf binder, which was separated into sections by preprinted dividers (Figures 4 and 5). This meant that the Table of Contents also needed frequent updating. Five thick binders were published in the original series (Figure 6).

Figure 5. Ausubel et al., eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, open so that dividers between the sections of the loose-leaf bound book are visible. Author photo.

The loose-leaf format proved unwieldy, and in 1989 Wiley published Short Protocols in Molecular Biology: A Compendium of Methods from Current Protocols in Molecular Biology. This single volume work was bound as a traditional text, with wide pages in a format that would prop open easily on the back of a lab bench. The challenge of updating was more easily accommodated by the growth of multimedia technologies in the 1990s. The 2001 edition came with a CD-ROM “Lab Book.” By the third edition (2001), Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual also had an associated website for its publication. Moving manuals online put knowledge at one’s fingertips in a new way, yet the demand for guides that can be plopped open on a lab bench has meant that print versions retain value, as evidenced by the publication of a fourth edition of Molecular Cloning in 2012. Most fields of life science today, including bioinformatics, cell biology, immunology, neuroscience, stem cell science, and toxicology, have their go-to manuals and protocol books, in print and online.

Figure 6. Three of the first five volumes, published in the late 1980s, of Ausubel et al., eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, stacked on office table. Author photo.

These “cookbooks” occupy the shelves, benches, and hard-drives of most biology labs, important if unnoticed. Their ubiquity enriches our understanding of the scientific process. An obsession with innovation may blind us to the importance of procedure, repeatability, and tried-and-true methods. Manuals make discovery possible, by leading scientists through the routine steps of their experiments and (if the manual is good) helping them trouble-shoot when experiments fail. In a world of hyper-specialized research, guide books are bridges, carrying technical know-how between laboratories and enabling researchers to master the latest methods without going back to school.


[1] For an overview see William Hayes, The Genetics of Bacteria and their Viruses (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965).

[2] S. M. Tilghman, D. C. Tiermeier, F. Polsky, M. H. Edgell, J. G. Seidman, A. Leder, L. W. Enquist, B. Norman, and P. Leder, “Cloning Specific Segments of the Mammalian Genome: Bacteriophage  Lambda Containing Mouse Globin and Surrounding Gene Sequences,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 74 (1977): 4406–4410; D. C. Tiermeier, S. M. Tilghman, and P. Leder, “Purification and Cloning of a Mouse Ribosomal Gene Fragment in Coliphage Lambda,” Gene 2 (1977): 173–191.

[3] Richard M. Lawn, Edward F. Fritsch, Richard C. Parker, Geoffrey Blake, and Tom Maniatis, “The Isolation and Characterization of Linked d- and b-Globin Genes from a Cloned Library of Human DNA,” Cell 15 (1978): 1157–1174.

[4] Interview with Tom Maniatis, Columbia University, New York, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.

[5] Jonathan Karn, “Yet Another Maniatis?” Trends in Genetics 4/9 (Sept 1988): 268.

[6] He was chair of an NIH study section and running a big lab, which involved constantly writing grants, as well as teaching a full load at Caltech. Interview with Maniatis, op. cit.

[7] Joe Sambrook was a talented and combative British tumor virologist whom Maniatis met when doing his cloning work at CSHL in the 1970s. Involving him as an author of the molecular cloning manual enabled a certain redress at CSHL. A few years earlier Sambrook had contributed significantly to John Tooze’s Tumor Virology book, but this was not acknowledged by his being an author. Personal communication, Alex Gann, 26 May 2010.

[8] Interview with Maniatis, op. cit.

[9] Tom Maniatis, Ed Fritsch, and Joe Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1982), iii.

[10] Conversation with Michael S. Levine, fall 2016.

[11] Stephanie Radner, Yong Li, Mary Manglapus, and William J. Brunken, “Joy of Cloning: Updated Recipes,” Trends in Neuroscience 25/11 (Nov 2002): 594–595.

[12] Memorandum from Susan Gensel to Jim Watson, 10 Dec 1982, re: sales at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting, Watson papers, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives. At that meeting Molecular Cloning sold 83 copies, and all the other sales together, 22 titles in all, made up 102 copies.

[13] British Society for Developmental Biology Newsletter VII, October 1982, review of Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, copy in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives.

[14] Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Annual Report 1982, 12.

[15] J. Sambrook, E. F. Fritsch, and T. Maniatis, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, 2nd ed. (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1989). This edition was three volumes.

[16] Stuart Orkin, “By the Book,” Nature 343 (15 Feb 1990): 604–605, on 604.

[17] S. J. W. Busby, “Comprehensive Cloning,” Trends in Genetics 4/12 (Dec 1988): 352.

[18] The Harvard-affiliated editors were Frederick Ausabel, Robert Kingston, Jonathan Seidman, and Kevin Struhl.

Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.

Tales from the Archives: Smelling ‘Violet’ in Renaissance Works

In 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have nearly 650 posts in our archives and over 160 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month’s we re-feature a post by Colleen Kennedy, first published in August 2013. I think that it fits very well with our conversations this month, don’t you?

Enjoy the spring flowers, everyone!



By Colleen Kennedy

The violet (Viola odorata) is cited in several herbals and many recipe books as a particularly sweet scented, fragrant flower. Herbals, such as Culpeper’s, describe the violet as a “cold and moist” plant, with many medicinal qualities. It is used as a laxative, and as a treatment of syphilis and uterine complaints; it counterbalances choleric humors, is good for many lung ailments, eases headaches and sleeplessness, and is a general panacea.

Violets are also commonly used in recipes, either as “cakes of violet,” “candied violets,” “conserve of violets,” or “syrup of violets,” as flavoring for metheglins (meads), and to add aromatic qualities to vinegars and other recipes:

To Make Syrup of Flowers:

Take of Violet flowers fresh and pickt, a pound, clear water boiling one quart, shut them up close together in a new glazed pot a whole day, then press them hard out, and in two pound of the Liquor, dissolve four pound and three ounces of white Sugar, take away the scum, and so make it into a Syrup without boiling. (Woolley 6)

Any of Hannah Woolley’s recipe books are a good place to begin to study early modern recipes utilizing violet flowers. Violet’s pleasant odor is also the source of its medicinal powers and cause for its common domestic usage.

Hannah Woolley's The Accomplish'd lady's delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)
Hannah Woolley’s The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)

So, what does the violet smell like?  English, alas, lacks a smell-vocabulary, and violet is repeatedly only listed as “sweet” or “fragrant.” Avery Gilbert considers the two distinct “voices” available to modern perfume makers: “Ingredient Voice” (the actual list of and proportions of ingredients) and “Imagery Voice” (“atmospherics, the drama of seduction, passion, and mystery”) (15). It is in that latter voice that we move closer to the more detailed early modern accounts of the aroma of violet.

For example, modern perfume blogger Normand Cardella, in his review of Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris, muses on the smell of violet: “So… what does a violet note smell like?  Well… it’s powdery, a little sweet and decidedly sad.  Musically, a violet note in perfume would be a minor chord.”

Likewise, for early modern writers, the violet is also a sad  and musical aroma. Francis Bacon, in his essay “Of Gardens” (1625),  links pleasurable odors and sounds (and much earlier than our modern perfumers): “And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air”. Violet is his favorite perfumed flower: “that which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet”.

The violet’s “imagery voice” is most fully articulated in Duke Orsino’s opening lines of Twelfth Night:

“Orsino and Viola” by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (c. 1850)

“If music be the food of love, play on.

Give me excess of it that, surfeiting

The appetite may sicken and so die.

That strain again, it had a dying fall.

O, it came so o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more.

‘Tis not so sweet as it was before.” (1.1.1-8)

Much of the language here that applies to music or love is equally applicable to the sensation of smelling violets,  especially violet’s unique chemical compound and its effect on the sense of smell. As Diane Ackerman describes: “Violets contain ionine, which short-circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again. Then it will fade again, and so on.”

The discovery of its isomer ketones did not occur until the late nineteenth century, yet, its affects were all very real experiences for early modern writers, such as Shakespeare, who attempt to distil and capture the essence of violet in distinctly beautiful terms, with the violet “stealing and giving odours.”

The “dying fall” of Orsino’s sad tune is like the melancholy aspects of the violet, evoking impermanence, transience, and death. Even Orsino’s command to stop the music can also describe the anesthetic properties of ionine.  As Orsino complains though, the scent, the song, the sensations, and so on is “not so sweet as it was before.”

John Gerard's "The herball or Generall historie of plantes" (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets
John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets

Orsino’s very mind, in its melancholic state, is affected by sweet airs—whether sad songs or fragrant violets. As the early modern brain was believed to be acutely affected by odors, and the violet emits a particularly sweet and sad aroma, the botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s regard for the violet’s olfactive and affective properties should not be surprising:

[Violets] haue a great prerogative aboue others, not onely because the minde conceiveth a certaine pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling of those most odoriferous flours, but also for that very many by these Violets receive ornament and comely grace …And the recreation of the minde which is taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest: for they admonish and stir up a man to that which is comely and honest… do bring to a liberall and gentle manly minde, the remembrance of honestie, comelinesse, and all kindes of vertues. (Chapter 312: “Of Violets” 849-850)

Gerard nicely summarizes the memorable, virtuous, affective, symbolic, and olfactive properties of the violet that we have been sniffing out in this brief essay.

Viola odorata

References (in order of appearance)

Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London: Arcturus, 2009).

Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery containing I. the art of preserving and candying fruits & flowers (London: Printed for B. Harris, and are to be sold at his shop, 1675).

Rebecca Laroche, with Steven Turner, “Robert Boyle, Hannah Woolley, and Syrup of Violets”, Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 390-91.

Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008).

The Norton Shakespeare Based on The Oxford Edition, second edition, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York, 2008).

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

Rebecca Laroche, “Ophelia’s Plants and the Death of Violets”, in L. Bruckner and D. Brayton, eds. Ecocritical Shakespeare (Ashgate, 2011).

Jessica Kerr, Shakespeare’s Flowers (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1969).

Richard Palmer, “In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century”, Medicine and the Five Senses, eds. W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

John Gerard, The Herball or Generall historie of plantes, 2nd ed. (London, 1633).