Points Video Interview—Yan Liu, Healing With Poisons: Potent Medicines in Medieval China

Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to feature the first Points Video Interview today! SHAD co-Editor Dr. David Herzberg interviews Dr. Yan Liu about his new book, Healing With Poisons: Potent Medicines in Medieval China.

Points Interview Yan Liu

At first glance, medicine and poison might seem to be opposites. But in China’s formative era of pharmacy (200–800 CE), poisons were strategically deployed as healing agents to cure everything from chills to pains to epidemics. In Healing with Poisons, Dr. Yan Liu explores the ways physicians, religious devotees, court officials, and laypeople used powerful drugs to both treat intractable illnesses and enhance life. By recovering alternative modes of understanding wellness and the body’s interaction with potent drugs, this book cautions against arbitrary classifications and exemplifies the importance of paying attention to the technical, political, and cultural conditions in which drugs become truly meaningful.

In this interview conducted by David Herzberg, Dr. Liu discusses several topics from his book, including the crucial, but forgotten role of poisons in Chinese medicine during the medieval era, the misconceived dichotomy between Chinese and Western medicine, psychoactive drugs, and the close relationship between poison, witchcraft, and politics in medieval China.

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The Lincoln Family and Pennyroyal: Re-Evaluating Medicines in the Archive and Beyond

Editor’s Note: Guest blogger Emma Verstraete is a doctoral candidate in Archaeology at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Why would a person buy this medicine? What were they trying to treat? As a historical archaeologist who focuses on consumer medicine, I’m faced with this question more frequently than many historians of medicine. Archaeologists rarely have access to journals, letters, or other primary sources that mention specific products present in an archaeological assemblage—such as the one pictured below from my own research about the material culture of consumerism. Historians of business and economics who research drugstores or pharmacies, too, are frequently faced with daybooks that list the product being purchased and by whom, but without specific context or rationale for the purchase.

archaeological assemblage
A photo of a typical artifact assemblage from a an urban archaeological site. Dating to the 1870s–80s, this assemblage featured over 50 medicine bottles, including vials from a medical field kit and 15 embossed bottles indicating specific drugstores or proprietary medicines. Photo courtesy of Fever River Research, a Cultural Resource Management firm that has conducted extensive research in the Springfield, Illinois, area.

Despite differences in research methods and artifact access, archaeologists and historians frequently confront such uncertainties relating to medicine use and disease treatment. Such subjects are also often considered taboo and are therefore sometimes not as extensively discussed in the written record. These circumstances place a burden of speculation on the researcher that demands acknowledgement of personal bias and, importantly, the biases of information recorded in archives.

Many cultures and communities, for example, rely on oral traditions, which can sometimes limit a researcher’s ability to find archival sources that deal with specific folk traditions or beliefs. Historically, who has been allowed—or not been allowed—to write down knowledge can also influence possible interpretations. And the places researchers go to verify and fact check information can also have limitations. Books and manuscripts accessioned by archives or libraries and institutional collecting policies, themselves, often reflect the history and the values of the majority culture at the expense of other groups [1]. Current efforts to decolonize and diversify the archive are working to improve these issues, but such efforts are long processes.

As a small case study, this post will discuss how such biases and silences in archival sources may have led a popular 1984 article about Abraham Lincoln to arrive at incomplete and (unintentionally) biased conclusions about the Lincoln household’s use of pennyroyal, a common plant used in nineteenth-century pharmaceutical preparations, folk medicine, and herbals.

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“Beyond the Medicines/Drugs Dichotomy: Historical Perspectives on Good and Evil in Pharmacy in Johannesburg, South Africa (5-7 December 2019) – Conference Report

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore and Jamie Banks of the University of Leicester.

Twenty-one delegates from ten countries gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa from 5 to 7 December for the “Beyond the Medicines/Drug Dichotomy: Historical Perspectives on Good and Evil in Pharmacy” conference. Masterfully organized by Thembisa Waetjen (University of Johannesburg) and co-sponsored by the Alcohol and Drugs History Society (ADHS), the Wellcome Trust, the University of Johannesburg, and the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH), the conference was held at the stunning facilities of the South Gauteng Branch of the Pharmaceutical Society of South Africa. The event also marked the latest step forward for the “Changing Minds: Psychoactive Substances in African and Asian History” project under the direction of Jim Mills (University of Strathclyde), which works to connect scholars of drugs and alcohol history in China, Africa, the UK, and beyond.

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Forces of necessity: The role of lay knowledge and advocacy in the re-medicalization of cannabis, 1973-2004

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Suzanne Taylor, Research Fellow at the Centre for History in Public Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and is based off of her presentation at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, held at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, on April 19-20, 2018. In it, she explores the role of lay knowledge and social activism in transforming cannabis into a legitimate medical substance from the 1970s to today. 

The problem:

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Alfie Dingley, the face of medical cannabis in the UK

In March 2018, the case of Alfie Dingley, a six year old boy with epilepsy, hit the headlines as his mother campaigned for access to cannabis oil to help alleviate his seizures. [1] But what was the background to activism for access to cannabis on medical grounds? When cannabis-based medicine was withdrawn in the UK in 1973 it appeared that cannabis’s career as a medicine had ended, but, even as cannabis became regulated solely as an illicit drug, it was being re-medicalized.  Within ten years of cannabis tinctures’ removal, synthetic cannabis-based drugs entered the clinic. However, these drugs caused serious side effects, were expensive and difficult to access, and so were little used. In the UK in the late 1990s the development of a cannabis-based drug using extracts from cannabis appeared to offer a potential way forward, and in 2006 the Home Office licensed GW Pharmaceuticals’ drug, Sativex, on a named-patient basis but it has not been widely available.  In 2015 the report Regulating Cannabis for Medical Use in the UK claimed that British patients were “suffering unnecessarily” and argued for the rescheduling of cannabis to enable its prescription and facilitate research.[2]

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Dr. Suzanne Taylor presents her work at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, April 20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images

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The Points Interview: Dan Malleck

Dan Malleck is an Associate Professor of Health Sciences at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario. He is the author of Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-1944 (University of British Colombia Press, 2012) and co-editor, with Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, of Consuming Modernity: Gendered Behaviour and Consumerism Before the Baby …

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THE FUTURE OF UK MEDICAL MARIJUANA REMAINS BLURRY BUT THERE ARE LESSONS TO TAKE AWAY FROM CANADA

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is cross-hosted at Points and Cannabis Life Network. Contact author Lucas Richert at lucasrichert@strath.ac.uk.  From 2014–2016, Canadian health authorities were forced to address the issue of medical marijuana, even as activist groups and industry sought to influence the decision-making process and its place in the medical marketplace. First, the system was privatized, …

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Conference Summary: “I’ve Been to Dwight,” July 14-18, 2016, Dwight, IL

Editor’s Note: This conference summary is brought to you by David Korostyshevsky, a doctoral student in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. He traveled to Dwight, Illinois, in mid-July to attend the ADHS off-year “I’ve Been to Dwight” conference, and has provided this account of his time there. Thanks David!

On July 14-18, 2016, a group of international alcohol and drug historians descended upon the village of Dwight, Illinois, for an ADHS off-year conference. Conference organizers selected Dwight because 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Keeley Institute.

Founded by Leslie E. Keeley in 1879 (and operating until 1966), the Keeley Institute offered treatment options to patients with addiction, usually alcoholism, including Keeley’s Gold Cure. “I’ve Been to Dwight,” the conference title, references “a catchphrase” former Keeley Institute patients “used to explain their sobriety.”

Keeley

To make it easier to read, this summary is organized thematically. You can see the full conference program here.

I live-tweeted the conference as @rndmhistorian under the hashtag #IBTD16. Also, Janet Olson, volunteer archivist at the Frances Willard Historical Association wrote a blog post about the conference.

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