Doing Early Modern Drugs

Editor’s Note: Points today welcomes the first in a series of guest posts by Matthew Crawford, Assistant Professor of the History of Science and Technology at Kent State University.  A historian of the early modern Atlantic World, he is at work on a book tentatively titled “A Cure for Empire: An American Wonder Drug, Enlightenment Science, and European Imperialism, 1750-1850.” Over the next few weeks, Crawford will draw Points readers deep into his area of specialization, the history of cinchona, the tree bark from which quinine is derived.  Today, however, he offers an overview of the changing pharmacopeias of the contact period and suggests some ways that drugs might help us think about modernity.

The centuries after Christopher Columbus’ encounter with the Americas must have been an exciting time for all kinds of drug users in the early modern world. As noted several decades ago by environmental historian Alfred Crosby, the encounter between Europe, the Americas and Africa after 1450 resulted in the intentional and unintentional movement and exchange of flora and fauna on a massive scale – a phenomenon that Crosby called the Columbian Exchange. One result of this process – in addition to the environmental and biological changes outlined by Crosby – was the expansion and enrichment of both European and American pharmacopoeias.

Cataloging the Global Pharmacopoeia: Leonhart Fuchs, De Historia Stirpium, 1542

As geographer Robert Voeks has suggested, the “disturbance pharmacopoeias” that result from cross-cultural contact and exchange often make use of a broader variety of plant materials than the pharmacopoeias of the original cultures. Along with Crosby’s Columbian Exchange, there emerged what we might call a Columbian Drug Trade as well. During the early modern period in Europe, physicians, pharmacists, patients and other drug users gradually had access to many novel drugs including cacao, tobacco, ipecac, guaiacum, and, later, cinchona bark, which we now know contains the anti-malarial alkaloid, quinine. As other historians have noted, if we’re looking for the roots of the modern global drug trade, the early modern Atlantic World is a good place to look.

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