John Carter Brown Library: Drugs from the Colonies– the New American Medicine Chest

Last week, just moments after Matt Crawford posted his guest blog on Doing Early Modern Drugs,  Points got word of a fantastic new exhibit at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, R.I. that speaks directly to some of the issues Matt was raising– and will continue to raise as his series continues over the next couple of weeks.  “Drugs from the Colonies– the New American Medicine Chest” will be on display at the JCB through December 22nd of this year, and should not be missed.

Digby, Nouveaux Remedes et Rares Secrets,1676

From the exhibition catalogue, prepared by Curator of European Books, Dennis Landis: “European physicians, healers, apothecaries, and others who prepared and administered drugs for medical purposes worked for centuries with a treasury of materia medica that was familiar from ancient times, drawing on minerals, plant products, and other biological resources from European and nearby African and Asian sources. The discovery of the New World opened a new pharmacopoeia available to those healers. At the same time, global expansion brought with it an intercontinental exchange of disease. While Old World diseases were proving disastrous for indigenous American populations, the medical knowledge of native healers was gradually entering the consciousness of European physicians, influencing the treatments of traditional maladies known throughout the World. The exhibit includes botanical and pharmacological writing and illustration that resulted from this intersection of worlds, and features manuscripts and printed books that focus on the curative powers of drugs from the New World, chronicle the remedies developed for both Old and New World diseases, and include illustrations of the new flora and fauna that were advocated for medicinal purposes.”

The abortifacient Caesalpinia pulcherrima, as documented by Maria Merian, Suriname, 1719

Those not traveling to Little Rhody between now and year’s end can satisfy their curiosity with the fantastic online version of the exhibit.  While it may lack the Benjaminian “aura” that makes viewing early modern documents (and hanging out in special collections libraries more generally) so heady, it is a state of the art production.  Easy to navigate sections treat “The Transformation of Medicine,” “The First Aid Kit,” “Venereal Disease, Coughs, and Phlegm,“Pleasure Drugs with Healthful Claims,” “Alimentary, My Dear,” and “Women’s Health, Self-Help, and a Way to Wellness.”  Within each, a brief commentary introduces the relevant issues.  Images of selected documents follow (in thumbnail on the main page, but they enlarge beautifully), each accompanied by a curatorial note that provides information on the artist/author and the circumstances in which the document was produced.

If you’re a drugs historian from the Northeast and you’ve ever had trouble explaining to your family what it is that you work on and why, and you plan to be home over the Thanksgiving or Winter Break, you should prioritize dragging your kin out to see this exhibit– skip the pumpkin pie and football game!  The compelling images and clear, readable text make the complex issues underlying the “disturbance pharmacopeias” of the contact period crystal clear.  For the same reasons, the exhibit would also make a fantastic teaching tool.  Finally, for those of you following the American Historical Association’s discussion of the need to train doctoral students for jobs that actually exist, here is a compelling example of the power of “digital humanities”: smart, stimulating, and useful– remarkably like drugs themselves.

Jan van der Straet, Nova Reperta, ca. 1600

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