Early Modern Medical “Discoveries”: New Remedies and Chemical Analysis

From the late 16th century through the 18th century, one of the chief reasons for Europeans to sail overseas on voyages of discovery–from Columbus and Da Gama to Flinders and Behring—was the hope of finding sources of wealth. Getting to the source of the spice trade was one of the most important motivations, because the category of “spice” included natural products that not only made food more tasty but also died cloth, lacquered woodwork, and acted as medicines, sustaining well-being or helping to restore it. Many imports that we now think of as foods or drinks were at first much prized for their physiological effects, sugar, tobacco, chocolate, tea, and coffee being among them. Some were already known and used in Europe, while others were adopted from other cultures. They did indeed provide new sources of wealth.

12 October 1492 – Christopher Columbus discovers The Americas for Spain, painting by Gergio Delucio

Almost from the beginning of the Spanish settlement of the Caribbean, people with some experience in medicine engaged in what would now be called “bio-prospecting,” asking about local remedies that might be effective against diseases anywhere. They included a new balsam that was said to be superior to the balsam known in antiquity, and a new wood (from the guaiacum tree) that was said to be effective against the “new” disease of syphilis. By the middle of the 16th century, physicians such as the famous Andreas Vesalius came to prefer China Root to guaiacum, and it in turn was replaced by sassafras root, which was one of the chief exports from the English settlement at Jamestown before they discovered tobacco production. The most famous new herbal remedy of the period was cinchona bark, introduced to Europe in the 1650s by Jesuits in Rome and Brussels, who brought it from Peru; in the 1690s, they used it to successfully treat the Kangxi Emperor of China, too. In the early 19th century, quinine was extracted from the bark, and cinchona cultivation later became one of the major industries of Java. About the same time, Dutch practitioners in Brazil adopted ipecacuanha root from the indigenous Tupi to treat intestinal “flux,” which also became a very important and widely-used medicine in Europe and European enterprises overseas. It was first described in Willem Piso’s Historia Naturalis Brasiliae of 1648.

"Historia Naturalis Brasiliae" 1648

But what could explain the good effects of these new remedies? Here, the new discoveries overseas and the new ideas from Paracelsian iatromedicine supported one another. Iatrochemists were, of course, using chemical methods to extract the active properties of plants and minerals, which could be turned into new and effective medicines. Many iatrochemists also attacked “Galenic” medicine for its theories of the four humors, the four qualities, and the four elements. Iatrochemists also argued against the classical idea that disease was a process rather than one or more species attacking the body. Over time, then, descriptions of new medicines shed attributes such as “hot in the second degree” and were simply said to work against this or that disease because of their particular virtues, or powers. Further indications about such virtues came from chemical analyses.
Therefore, by the seventeenth century, when members of the VOC wanted to use the latest methods in describing the new plants and medicines of places such as Ceylon or the Malabar coast of India, they employed not only the methods of botany but of chemistry as well.

The shipyard of the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam, circa 1750.

For instance, Hermann Nicolaus Grimm published a book in 1677 at Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, titled Laboratorium chymicum gehouden op het voortreffelycke Eylandt Ceylon, Soo in ‘t Animalische, Vegetabilische, als Mineralishce Ryck, explaining the chemical composition of such things as elephant tusks and on that basis why they work against certain diseases.

In other words, many new herbal remedies were being imported from the New World, Asia, and Africa to 17th-century Europe, many of them coming from Dutch-controlled places or through the hands of Dutch merchants. But their effects could hardly be understood according to Galenic categories. The new chemistry and the new botany were not so much different sciences as activities intertwined with the processes of discovery, which were in turn associated with the new global commerce.

Harold J. Cook

History Department at Brown University


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