The Lost Secret of the Chevalier de Guiller’s Powder Febrifuge

The Lost Secret of the Chevalier de Guiller’s Powder Febrifuge: Testing Drugs for Monopoly Privileges and Military Contracts in Early Eighteenth-Century France

Justin Rivest (Johns Hopkins University)

My paper follows the fortunes of a single drug—the poudre fébrifuge of the Chevalier de Guiller—through two successive regimes of royal patent medicine licensing and military testing in eighteenth-century France. Examining the case of the poudre fébrifuge and comparing it to other cases of familial medical monopolies in this period, I argue that by the 1730s an important coterie of vendors of proprietary medicines had forged reciprocal relationships with state power, first by supplying their medications in bulk quantities to the military, and later by expanding their operations to serve the Compagnie des Indes, foreign missions, and even for domestic poor relief efforts. These cases demonstrate that the state could become the most important consumer of drugs from those vendors that it favored with monopoly privileges.

My project draws specifically on an exceptional collection of documents including account ledgers, correspondence, and medical reports surrounding the poudre fébrifuge, which have been preserved thanks to a rather vicious legal battle over the division profits between the two medical entrepreneurs (Pierre Brodin de Lajutais and Étienne Guérin) who “recovered” its medical secret and renewed the accompanying privilege in 1732. When compared to unfavorable reports on the results of hospital trials in 1714 and to the objections of the “secret remedies” commission in 1732, these sources raise important questions about the role of clinical testing in the allocation of medical privileges and military contracts in this period, as well as about the relative importance of trials overseen personally by the royal first physician as compared to those undertaken in naval hospitals distant from Versailles. I suggest that the commercial and military expediency of a drug such as the poudre fébrifuge, based as it was on a variety of tithymale (euphorbia) widely available in France, can in many ways be seen as a “pro-indigenous” (i.e., local) reaction to the cost and supply problems associated with drugs based on exotic foreign plants such as cinchona, however “proven” such foreign drugs might be.