The History of Science on Drugs

Editor’s Note: Points readers who can remember back to 2011 will recall the great posts that guest blogger and early modern historian of science Matthew Crawford brought our way: thoughtful considerations of “disturbance pharmacopeias” and of the tensions between discovery and invention. Today he concludes his series with us by calling for an “applied metaphysics” in drugs history.

What might the history of science on drugs–or, put less euphoniously, the history of the science of drugs– look like? To answer this, we need to consider how the histories of science and of drugs might inform and engage each other.

Higher Order Thinking

In the early decades of the history of science, now nearly a century ago, the field had little to say about drugs. Many thought of the history of science as a cousin to intellectual history and the history of ideas– an association that derived, in part, from early 20th-century conceptions of science as a predominantly philosophical endeavor, which left the work of actually manipulating the material world to other enterprises like technology and medicine. (Think of the earlier distinctions between “pure” and “applied” science, for example.) Drugs, as part of that material world, did not fall under the purview of early history of science.

As a result of scholarship in the last half century or so, we now understand science as an enterprise involving both the via activa and the via contemplativa, and see scientific practitioners as actively engaged in the material world through interactions with instruments, objects, texts, images, and other people. As noted in a 2007 essay by Ken Alder, historians of science took this materialist turn in the 1970s and 1980s; more recently, even historians of “high science” have focused their attention on material objects and practices “in hopes of anchoring cultural histories that they feared might otherwise drift away upon a hermeneutical sea.” One example, among many, of this recent development is Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps, an account of the history of Einstein’s theory of relativity, in which Galison puts the material and technical challenges of establishing the simultaneity of the clock at the center of the genesis of this paragon of twentieth-century abstract science. (Think of the recent popularity of the notion of “technoscience” to emphasize the entanglement of science and technology in a variety of ways.)

In the midst of this proliferation of interest in the histories of scientific objects and the material culture of science (broadly defined), drugs have received comparatively little attention.

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