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. Galen, the great Greek physician of the second century, established the system that physicians would work with through modern times.

In the early modern period, existing science confronted the medical riddle of syphilis, seemingly unknown to Europe before the return of Columbus’s ships from the Caribbean Sea. Treatment efforts soon seized on guaiacum, a plant found in South America and promoted in print across Europe. The Americas hosted a pharmacopoeia unknown to the ancients, though in most cases these remedies were in common use by indigenous healers. The importation of Africans from tropical regions as slave labor complicated the medical picture by transmitting less familiar illnesses into the American colonies. 

All these developments resulted in new botanical and pharmacological writing. Physicians compiled their own manuscript compendia of treatments and curative drugs and recipes. New works were published that focused on the curative powers of drugs from the East and West Indies, and European medical students performed in academic exercises that explored the known extent of their applications. Existing pharmacopoeias gradually incorporated the new findings, though placing much emphasis on the medical promise of drugs we now associate largely with personal pleasure, including tobacco.


This exhibition was curated by Dennis C. Landis.