Pharmacy in History Interview—Rachael Pymm, “Transmitting Medical Exotica”

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of the Points series of interviews with authors from the latest issue of AIHP’s journal Pharmacy in History (vol. 62, no. 3-4). Today we feature Rachael Pymm, an independent researcher, holding an MA from the History Department of Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. You can see her article here. Contact AIHP to subscribe to Pharmacy in History.

Article Abstract for “Transmitting Medical Exotica: Louis Philiberto Vernatti, the Snakestone, and the Royal Society “

Snakestones, purported to naturally generate in the head of a snake, were reputed to be a cure for snakebites in the early modern world. Against the backdrop of European exoticism, which influenced the circulation of pharmaceutical and medical knowledge, snakestones became a subject of popular and scholarly interest during the late seventeenth century. Analyzing unpublished archival evidence, this paper considers the circumstances of the 1664 transmission of an individual snakestone from Batavia, Indonesia, to the Royal Society in London, England. Unlike other pharmaceutical exotica that was commonly conveyed via large-scale commercial networks, the trade in snakestones was characterized by small-scale transfer in the manner of kunstkammer materials.

Tell readers a little bit about yourself:

I’m an independent scholar based in the UK, and I work in Professional Services at a university. I have a broad range of academic interests, including the history of medicine, as well as the medieval crusades and how they have been memorialized on postage stamps. I have been researching unusual animal-based materia medica—particularly snakestones—for a number of years, alongside my work and family commitments. Researching in this way can be challenging, particularly in terms of time management, but I really love my subject. And I have a very supportive family most of whom—including my six year old son—are now fully conversant in snakestone lore!

PH Interview Pymm

Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring:

In the Early Modern period, some people used to think that a rare and valuable stone, supposedly taken from the head of a certain snake—called a snakestone—could heal patients bitten by a venomous serpent. The stone, reportedly, had the curious property of sticking to the skin when fluids were present and then falling off after it had sucked out all the poison. The “stone” is, in fact, a piece of burnt bone, and it is absolutely not a miracle cure for snakebites!

I came across some archival letters documenting how one particular sample of snakestone was sent from Indonesia to England in the seventeenth century, by way of a shallow but positive relationship between the newly elected President of the Royal Society and an old family friend, Louis Philiberto Vernatti, an employee of the Dutch East India Company. It is unusual to be able to map out the circumstances and path of a discrete sample of materia medica, and I found this story a useful way to explore the ways and relationships through which pharmaceutical exotica were transmitted to Europe in the early modern period.

Snakestone
Snakestone (Pedra de Cobra) held by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, London. Each different section of the scale is one centimeter long. Photograph by Rachael Pymm.

What got you interested in the history of pharmacy, drugs, or pharmaceuticals? 

I was casting about for a PhD topic, and, in conversations, snakestones appeared as a possibility. Upon investigating them a little, I fell headlong into the rabbit hole. I was particularly intrigued by how they demonstrate the coming together of myth and medicine. The use of snakestones as a medical treatment has a pedigree dating to ancient times, and they have a quite fantastical origin story. It might be expected that there would be little associated material culture, but snakestones appear in a surprising number of literary works. We have also hypothesized that they were represented on early modern tableware. The coming together of these threads helps provide a richer understanding of what might otherwise be easily dismissed as simply an odd medicine.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

Yes! I have identified several different types or subsets of snakestones, and I have published articles on various aspects of these. I’m currently working on a paper exploring the experiments undertaken by Dr. John Davy (the younger brother of Sir Humphry Davy) about snakestones. I am also working on a paper considering the possible representation of “dragonstones” and snakestones on early modern tableware.

Having written about the history of the circulation of medical/pharmaceutical knowledge, does your research offers any insights into contemporary public health issues or debates?

I find it an interesting counterpoint to the modern corporate worldwide trade in pharmaceuticals to explore the early origins of international trade in materia medica. Regarding snakestones in particular, they are still used in developing nations as a first aid item and lives are needlessly lost as a result; hopefully steps can be made to counter this.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field?

Interdisciplinary work. I think this affords so many new approaches and avenues.

Which scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

Well, I would say Louis Philiberto Vernatti (the subject of my article). He was a merchant, lawyer, and one-time illicit drug taker but not a scholar . . . Following the restrictions imposed through the coronavirus pandemic, I am very much looking forward to having Sunday lunch again with my Dad (Dr. Christopher Duffin–recently researching fossils in folklore and materia medica and the President of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy). But as that is likely to happen soon, I will say John Davy. He had a very interesting life, and I would love to talk with him about learning in his brother’s laboratory, why he trained as a doctor, how he found it forging his own path in the shadow of his brother’s fame—and of course, more detail about his snakestone experiments!

Read “Transmitting Medical Exotica: Louis Philiberto Vernatti, the Snakestone, and the Royal Society” on JSTOR or request that your library purchase access to Pharmacy in History.

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