Experimenting Exotic Drugs in Charitable Institutions and Hospitals (16th–18th C.)

Experimenting Exotic Drugs in Charitable Institutions and Hospitals (16th–18th C.)

Samir Boumediene


Title page of Johannes Christophorus Homann's Dissertatio inauguralis medica de medicinae cum geosophia nexu quam auspice deo prpitio (Hala Madgeburica, Hendelius, 1725). Johann Georg Ebersperger's engraving shows a Persian, with a gift-bearing Native American following close behind, offering remedies to Asclepius. The bed-ridden patient, the apothecary's chest laden with books, plants, a globe and the various alchemical tools next to Asclepius remind readers of the trials and experimentations on new materia medica.

This project investigates early modern trials and experimentations on 'exotic' materia medica. It considers these trials both as epitemological processes designed to produce new natural knowledge and as social processes designated to generate trust. A drug is not only experienced as a material affecting the body, it is also experimented in order to answer questions: what are its virtues? How does it operate? What is the best way to prepare it? How administer it and in which dosage? All these questions concern both the substance and the body. As an interactive inquiry, the experimentation of drugs involves not only medical conceptions, but also practical knowledge mobilizing the five senses as well as instrumentation. In this process, the sick play an overlooked role: their pain can modify frequency and dosage; meanwhile their taste can modify the recipe. The experimentation is a protocol which tracks the regularities and irregularities of a medication. The repetition of the same effect leads to define a virtue or a risk, and a method of administration.

Because they are new and unknown, exotic drugs offer a good focus to study this process, which took place in various sites. This postdoctoral project focuses on hospitals and charitable institutions. For instance, the introduction of American drugs from 16c to 18c constantly involved charitable institutions: guaiacum was experimented in Augsburg by Cardinal Lang around 1520; Peruvian bark by the Jesuits in the Santo Spirito Hospital of Rome; and Ipecacuaha in the Hôtel Dieu at the request of Louis XIV. With these examples, we can identify what looks like a pattern: an authority knows of a new remedy; it orders its preliminary tests at a large scale and then it organizes its further diffusion to societies. Symmetrically, this pattern can be verified by the fact that experimentations in hospitals also disqualified remedies. Interested by an American balsam, Cosimo I di Medici asked to the Faculty of Medicine of Florence to experiment it on the sick of Santa Maria Nuova Hospital but the test was not conclusive.

Though remedies were freely distributed to the poor, such a process can hardly be seen as charitable. We can wonder in what extent the experimentation of drugs contributed to the birth of health policy. For States which converted to the populationnist theories, spreading efficient remedies was a central issue. When Louis XIV ordered to the physician Helvétius to try the Ipecacuanha root on sick poor of the Hôtel-Dieu, his intent was to spread this Brazilian drug to his ship's crews.

I question the validity of this pattern in a comparative way, including colonial spaces and extending my research to Asiatic remedies. I focus on four sites, using a wide range of sources: the Hospital de Naturales of México where Francisco Hernández, a physician to the Spanish king, tested hundreds of medicinal plants on Indian inmates; the Sevilian Hospital of Cinco Llagas Hospital (Archivo de la Diputación de Sevilla) where most of American drugs were first tested; the Parisian hospitals at the end of the 17th century; and the Roman hospitals during the 18th century.

  • Boumediene, S. (2014). L’acclimatation portuaire des savoirs sur le lointain : les drogues exotiques à Séville, Livourne et Cadix (XVIe-XVIIe siècles). In P. Bernaldo González & L. Hilaire-Pérez (Eds.), Les savoirs-mondes. Mobilité et circulation des savoirs depuis le Moyen Âge (pp. 135-147). Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes.