Poison Antidotes and Drug Testing in Early Modern Europe

Anecdote, Experiment, and Trial: Poison Antidotes and Drug Testing in Early Modern Europe

Alisha Rankin (Tufts University)

This project calls attention to two different kinds of drug tests in sixteenth-century Europe: the use of a medicine on a person who was already ill, which I am calling an anecdote, and the testing of the antidote on a healthy subject whose bodily state has been changed artificially, which I am calling a trial. The vast majority of pharmaceutical testing was conducted through anecdote. Poison antidotes, in contrast, had long been tested through trials, in which an animal (usually a bird) was given poison and then administered the antidote. Prior to the sixteenth century, poison trials were mainly theoretical guidelines for testing the authenticity of the widespread antidote theriac, following a trial described in Galen. From the 1520s, however, court physicians began to test new poison antidotes experientially for their efficacy and were granted condemned criminals to use as test subjects. At the same time, they tested antidotes anecdotally on sick patients. Descriptions of these tests—both anecdote and trial—became increasingly detailed through the sixteenth century, a sign both of the increased sophistication in testing drugs and of the extensive interest in antidotes.


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