Month: June 2013

Scientists Prove that Herodotus Lied

Flushed with their success in proving when the Iliad was written, scientists have now proven that Herodotus’s Histories do not necessarily reflect universal practices and timeless truths. A pair of anthropologists recently compared Herodotus’s account of Egyptian embalming practices to some scholarly descriptions of and a handful of their own CT scans of surviving mummies. They found that Herodotus’s account, written sometime in the mid-fifth century BC, doesn’t to reflect mummification practices over the course of three millennia stretching from the Old Kingdom to the Roman period. They conclude, therefore, that Herodotus’s account of Egyptian practices was neither accurate nor adequately representative of what really happened. Classicists and historians everywhere are sleeping easier now that science has confirmed their centuries-old conclusions grounded in nothing more than historical analyses.

In “Radiological Evaluation of the Evisceration Tradition in Ancient Egyptian Mummies” (behind Elsevier’s ubiquitous paywall, but the abstract should be free) A. D. Wade and A. J. Nelson offer what seem to be new findings about Egyptian mummies, such as which organs were removed, which were replaced into the body, and who was mummified and how.[1] These findings, in turn, raise some interesting questions, some of which the authors tentatively answer. For example, the authors found that over nearly three millennia Egyptian embalmers commonly removed the same set of internal organs—lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines. They speculate that these organs were removed because their physiological functions would have been clear “even to the anatomically gifted but physiologically challenged knowledge of the Egyptian embalmer.” Although they do admit that this explanation doesn’t work so well for the liver.[2]

What I don’t understand is why the authors cast their work as a corrective to Herodotus.[3] On the one hand, since antiquity scholars have questioned Herodotus’s veracity and accuracy and have pointed out his errors and lies. In his scathing critique, Of Herodotus’s Malice, Plutarch accused Herodotus of the worst kinds of deception: lies dressed up in elegant prose and engaging style that will attract readers. On the other hand, Herodotus was a traveler, a tourist, a collector of strange oddities. As Wade himself remarked to Live Science, many of Herodotus’s “accounts sound more like tourist stories.” Historians and Classicists have long considered Herodotus a collector and teller of stories. Yes, Cicero anointed him the “Father of History,” but his history did not conform to our modernist standards of factual veracity and accuracy. So then, who is responsible for creating Herodotus’s “normative descriptions … [that] impede the investigation of a wide range of variation in Egyptian mummification techniques” that bother Wade and Nelson? And what benefit is there in demonstrating that Herodotus’s report of embalming practices in the 5th century was neither accurate nor adequately representative of embalming practices centuries earlier or centuries later?

Maybe Herodotus didn’t get it wrong. Maybe modern scientists got Herodotus wrong. After all, Herodotus couldn’t have been writing for 21st-century scientists, speaking to their intellectual concerns and interests in terms that they understand. So maybe modern anthropologists and scientists have misunderstood what Herodotus was doing when he wrote his Histories. They should not assume that they can treat Herodotus’s text as an unproblematic source out of which they can fish particular terms and then impose their meaning onto those terms.

And maybe Herodotus got it right. In his account Herodotus distinguishes between embalming and wrapping the body in linen, i.e., mummification. He seems to have been most interested in embalming practices, not mummification. In his Histories, he describes three methods of embalming. In his Histories, book 2, ch. 86 he recounts the most expensive method:

(86) There are men whose sole business this is and who have this special craft. When a dead body is brought to them, they show those who brought it wooden models of corpses, painted likenesses; the most perfect way of embalming belongs, they say, to One whose name it would be impious for me to mention in treating such a matter; the second way, which they show, is less perfect than the first, and cheaper; and the third is the least costly of all. Having shown these, they ask those who brought the body in which way they desire to have it prepared. Having agreed on a price, the bearers go away, and the workmen, left alone in their place, embalm the body. If they do this in the most perfect way, they first draw out part of the brain through the nostrils with an iron hook, and inject certain drugs into the rest. Then, making a cut near the flank with a sharp knife of Ethiopian stone, they take out all the intestines, and clean the belly, rinsing it with palm wine and bruised spices; they sew it up again after filling the belly with pure ground myrrh and casia and any other spices, except frankincense. After doing this, they conceal the body for seventy days, embalmed in saltpetre; no longer time is allowed for the embalming; and when the seventy days have passed, they wash the body and wrap the whole of it in bandages of fine linen cloth, anointed with gum, which the Egyptians mostly use instead of glue; then they give the dead man back to his friends. These make a hollow wooden figure like a man, in which they enclose the corpse, shut it up, and keep it safe in a coffin-chamber, placed erect against a wall.

Families who paid for the most expensive method received an embalmed and wrapped body. Families that opted for the cheaper method or the cheapest method received correspondingly fewer services. Rather than remove the organs, the embalmers dissolved them using oils and then returned the bodies without wrapping them in any way.

Herodotus leaves out a few useful and important pieces of information.

  1. He doesn’t tell us what happened to the unwrapped bodies after they were returned to the families. Perhaps the families wrapped them in linen, perhaps they didn’t. We can only guess.
  2. Herodotus also doesn’t tell us how many people opted for each of the methods, so we have no way of knowing what sort of distribution we should expect. Once again, we can only guess.
  3. He also doesn’t give us any idea about how long these methods had been used. And he couldn’t see the future, so he couldn’t tell us how long they would continue to be practiced. We can only guess.

We should now be able to “formulate a hypothesis that can be empirically tested.” If the account by Herodotus is correct, then evisceration by abdominal incision should be found in some portion of Late Period mummies. Let’s turn now to the authors’ data and test this hypothesis. Table 1 selects out the Late Period mummies from Table 1 in the article.

Table 1
(compiled from the article)
Examples of evisceration in Late Period Egyptian mummies.[4]
Status Total Eviscerated Per anum Perineal Abdominal
Elite 10 10 1 1 7
Common 5 5 0 0 5
Unknown 10 9 0 0 6
Total 25 24 1 1 18

24 of 25 mummies showed signs of evisceration. 18 of those were through an abdominal incision. Those numbers, 96% and 72% respectively, seem to agree pretty well with what we would expect if Herodotus’s story is accurate and adequately representative of 5th-century practices: some mummies show signs of abdominal incision and evisceration, some don’t. The hypothesis constructed from the stereotyped account by Herodotus is confirmed by the data. And if the data wasn’t sufficiently convincing, as further proof I offer The Historyteachers’ video Mummification.

Despite framing the article as a correction to Herodotus, neither the authors nor the journal editors nor even the reviewers seem to have thought to consult a classicist or historian. Consequently, we get a rather simplistic straw-man argument that adds nothing to but overwhelms their real contributions about mummification practices. The authors and journal editors missed a chance to contribute to an interdisciplinary discussion about how we understand the past and how we can use scientific techniques to refine and extend our understanding of that past.


  1. A.D. Wade and A.J. Nelson, “Radiological evaluation of the evisceration tradition in ancient Egyptian mummies”
    HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology 64(2013): 1–28 — http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jchb.2012.11.005.  ↩

  2. Rather than assume Egyptian embalmers had some impoverished and incomplete knowledge of modern physiology, a more fruitful approach might be to ask: “What function did these organs play in Egyptian medicine?” Perhaps Egyptian humoral medicine assigned these organs important functions—later humoral medicine associated the lungs with phlegm and the liver with blood.  ↩

  3. The authors also refer to Diodorus Siculus, and both Plutarch and Porphyry receive a few mentions. But their main target seems to be Herodotus’s “normative descriptions”—excluding citations, they mention Herodotus 12 times, i.e., 41.3% of the total references to classical authors. By contrast, they mention Diodorus 7 times, or 24.1% of the references (Porphyry and Plutarch garner only 5 (17.2%) and 4 (13.8%) references each).
    When Live Science first reported on the article, they cast it as a corrective to Herodotus. Scientific American’s 2,400-Year-Old Myths of Mummy-Making Busted, CNBC, and others merely reproduced the Live Science.  ↩

  4. Two notes about the data in this table:
    First, the socio-economic status indicated needs further justification. The authors rely on B.J. Kemp’s distinction, which he developed in studying the Old and Middle Kingdoms and the Second Intermediate Period, roughly 1,100 years before Herodotus wrote. It would be nice to see the authors justify the applicability of these categories, which they treat as static and timeless.
    See B.J. Kemp, “Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period c. 2686–1552 BC” in
    B.G. Trigger, B.J. Kemp, D. O’Connor, A.B. Lloyd (Eds.), Ancient Egypt: A Social History (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1983), pp. 71–182.
    Second, whether or not Herodotus would not have recognized the distinction between “per anum” and “perineal” is an open question. And if he recognized it, we still don’t know if he would have bothered to make that distinction in his Histories.  ↩

Why History Matters—for Some People

I recently wondered aloud about the relevance of history and history of science. I want to distinguish my question from a collective anxiety that seems once again to be gripping the nation. Although my question was specifically about how we make history or history of science relevant to today’s audience, we could substitute “history” for most humanities disciplines.

At the moment many institutions and organizations are worrying about the marginalization of the humanities in the U.S. and declining enrollments: the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’s Commission on the Humanities urges us to “Join this national conversation;” Harvard’s The Humanities Project recently concluded and published its report on strengthening the humanities; The Wall Street Journal reported on “Harvard Humanities Fall From Favor Among College Students;” the NY Times rehearsed some of the standard charges against the humanities, “Humanities Committee Sounds an Alarm;” David Brooks jumped on the bandwagon with his op-ed “The Humanist Vocation” accusing humanists of having lost faith in their own enterprise (David Silbey offers a critique in The Joy Of Start Points). Ben Schmidt provides some much needed long-term perspective on the current “crisis” in humanities enrollments (there is another version of his post at the Chronicle: A Crisis in the Humanities?). For all this collective handwringing, I see few interesting answers to the problem, whatever that problem is.

“This national conversation” seems to conflate various issues—including enrollment numbers, practical job prospects of students in humanities, lack of faith and vision amongst humanists. What happens when we focus on a specific issue: how do you make [fill in your beleaguered humanities discipline here] relevant to your audience. This is a version of “Why bother with [x]?” or “How do you make the person fixing your car care about your scholarship?”

Claire Potter reminded us in her recent post about flipping the curriculum, that simply saying the humanities have transcendent value is not sufficient (and probably never has been sufficient). Instead, she suggests that we teach “college students the history of what they plan to do.” She suggests replacing the general survey courses with topical courses focused on the students’ intended careers: pre-med students could take a History of Medicine (throw in a field trip to a local history of medicine museum, e.g., for me the Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia), business majors perhaps a History of the Office (regrettably, the Early Office Museum exists only online, although various local historical societies have recreated business offices of the past), finance or economics students could take a History of Finance (I would add a field trip to Museum of American Finance). Making our courses relevant in this way does not debase our courses or the intellectual work students do in them. I would suggest that such relevance makes everybody’s experience better.

In his Why History? Thony C. offers a more general response to the “Why bother with [x]?” question :

I think that at no other time has an awareness and knowledge of the history of science been so important exactly because of the role that history plays in defining identity. We live in a society that is totally defined and dominated by science and technology in a way that has never before been the case. Above all technology has for several millennia played a significant role in defining the various and myriad human societies but a society that has been so completely dominated by its science and technology, as ours is has never before existed. I believe passionately that an understanding of the historical process that brought us to this situation is necessary if we are not to become alienated from this all-dominant aspect of our society and thereby lose an important facet of our own identity.

Because history plays an important role in how we define ourselves, and because science and technology play such an important role in our society today, we should study the history of science. John Horgan seems to have read Thony’s post before offering his own reasons for studying the humanities in a post at Scientific American, Why Study Humanities? What I Tell Freshmen:

But it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.

I agree with these completely, and in the past have offered similar, usually tied to a call for action:

History is only superficially about the past. It is, in the end, a profoundly political activity that structures our understanding of the present, justifies current policy choices, and guides our future decisions. The history of science is even more laden with political significance, linked as science often is to traditions of Liberal Democracy and narratives about the triumph of the Western World. Science and past scientific achievements are frequently invoked to defend present ideologies and reassert contemporary hierarchies. Think of how the Galileo Affair is a metonym for our conflicts between science and religion or how the Scientific Revolution is taken evidence for the superiority of our Modern, Western world. My goal in studying the history of science is to disrupt these easy, comfortable assumptions about science and its relationship to society, culture, truth, and nature.

I have tried various ways to implement this in my courses. See, for example, Biography of a Map and the follow-ups Mapping Our Way Forward and Some Final Thoughts on Maps.

At the end of the day, as Claire Potter pointed out, we have to do the work to make history and the other humanities relevant. I am not yet willing to concede that history is a luxury or that history of science cannot contribute to the everyday activities of practicing scientists.

The Rise and Fall of Pilulae

A little searching on EEBO suggests that “pilulae” (and variations such as “pilula” or “pilullae”) enjoyed a heyday of marketing authority for about 20 years in 17th-century England, right around the time people seemed particularly worried about the scurvy epidemic.

Although the earliest reference to pilulae in the title appeared in Patrick Anderson’s Grana angelica hoc est Pilularum hujus nominis in signis utilitas Quibus etiam accesserunt alia quaedam paucula de durioris alvi incommodis propter materiae cognationem, ac vice supplementi in fine adjuncta, published in Edinburgh in 1635, the term did not catch on right away. The next pamphlet to refer to pilulae was published in 1664: Lionel Lockyer’s An advertisement, concerning those most excellent pills called pillulae radijs solis extractae. Being an universal medicine, especially in all chronical and difficult distempers, as by the ensuing discourse will most clearly appear. Over the next twenty years another 15 pamphlets by at least 8 different authors were published, each advertising some wonder pill that cured all manner of disease.

The lists of places to purchase these pills offer a fascinating glimpse into the market for medicines in later 17th-century London. Booksellers seem to be the most common places to purchase these medicines. Coffeehouses seem to have sold medicines too. A few unexpected places apparently sold medicines: shoe makers, haberdashers, a cutler, and even a razor maker. These lists of places to purchase these pills could be used to map where things were sold. In some cases these pills were sold at a remarkable number of shops in London and beyond.

Finally most of these pamphlets also include prices, which ranged from about 2 shillings to about 6 shillings per box. A late pamphlet, J. T.’s Pilula Imperialis gel Sospitalis (London, 1700), advertised a cure for various venereal diseases for prices ranging from 2 shillings to 10 shillings “as occasion requireth.”

The pamphlets seem to conform to a standard set of conventions. Typically, they include a discussion of the sources of the diseases, a list of likely symptoms, a suggested course of treatment to accompany the pills, and some testimony or report of the pills efficacy. They are all clearly marketing tools.

It would be interesting to compile the diseases listed in these pamphlets to get an idea about what the public seemed to fear most in late 17th-century England. It would also be interesting to map where the pills were sold as well as begin to make a map of where different trades and shops did business. Perhaps there are other pamphlets that similarly indicate where certain items were sold that could be used to broaden the map of commerce in 17th-century London.

For those interested, here are the “pilulae” pamphlets. The titles link to the EEBO file (which, regrettably, requires a subscription to view):

Patrick Anderson, Grana angelica hoc est Pilularum hujus nominis in signis utilitas Quibus etiam accesserunt alia quaedam paucula de durioris alvi incommodis propter materiae cognationem, ac vice supplementi in fine adjuncta. (Edinburg, 1635). 40 pages.

Lionel Lockyer, An advertisement, concerning those most excellent pills called pillulae radijs solis extractae. Being an universal medicine, especially in all chronical and difficult distempers, as by the ensuing discourse will most clearly appear. Truly and only prepared by Lionel Lockier, licensed physitian. (London, 1664). 16 pages.
Sold by:

  • Mrs. Harfords at the Bible in Heart in Little Britain
  • Mr. Brugis, printer, next door to Red Lyon Inn, in Newstreet near Fetter Lane
  • Rich. Lownds, bookseller, at White Lion in St. Paul’s Churchyard
  • Mr. Russel’s in Mugwel Street near Cripple Gate
  • Mr. Randal’s at the Three Pigeons, beyond St. Clements Church, in the Strand
  • more than 20 shops beyond London

Cost: 4 shillings per box.

Lionel Lockyer, An advertisement concerning those most excellent pills, called, pillvlae radijs solis extractae. Being an universal medicine, especially in all chronical and difficult distempers, as by the insuing discourse will most clearly appear. / Truly and onely prepared by Lionel Lockier, licensed physitian. (London, 1664). 16 pages.
Sold by:

  • Mrs. Harfords at the Bible in Heart in Little Britain
  • Mr. Russel’s in Mugwel Street near Cripple Gate
  • Mr. Randal’s at the Three Pigeons, beyond St. Clements Church, in the Strand
  • Thomas Virgoes, cutler, upper end of New Fish Street
  • Mr. Brugis, printer, next door to Red Lyon Inn, in Newstreet near Fetter Lane
  • more than 20 shops beyond London

Cost: 4 shillings per box.

Lionel Lockyer, An advertisement, concerning those most excellent pills called pilulae radiis solis extractae. being an universal medicine, especially in all chronical and difficult distempers as by the ensuing discourse will most clearly appear. / Truly and only prepared by Lionel Lockyer, licensed physitian (London, 1667). 21 pages.
Sold by Tho. Fydge, apothecary, at Bishopgate Street at the sign of the Sugarloaf.

B.P., Pilulae antipudendagriae, or, Venus’s refuge whereby every one may secretly cure and preserve themselves from all venereal evils, being a secret never before published : also, the plain and true discovery of the French disease (London: A Brooks, 1669). 16 pages.
Sold by

  • booksellers at the Gridiron near Turn-stile in Holborn
  • at the Three Bibles on London Bridge
  • at the Starr in Little Britian
  • at the Fethers in Westminster Hall
  • at the Angel and Horne in Gresham College
  • at the George in Fleetstreet near St. Dunstan’s Church.

Cost: 5 shillings

Anthony Colly, Natures champion, sounding a challenge to her stoutest assailants: or, a more ample explanation of the virtue and use of my pilulae aureae purgantes, whose operation is hemetick, purgative, diaphoretick, diuretick, anodyne, and narcotick. Whereunto is added a plain and short method, whereby every one of an indifferent capacity … may know under what distemper they labour, and how … my pill works their cure and deliverance. : Also, catalogue of cures performed by this pill … likewise account of twenty four eminent cures performed by an eminent doctor … when all other medicines (except my pill) proved successless. (London: Richard Lownes, 1670). 40 pages.
Sold by

  • Mr. Richard Lownes at the Sign of White Lyon in Duck Lane
  • Robert Horn, bookseller, at Entrance to Gresham College on Bishopgate Street
  • Peter Parker, bookseller, in Cornhill at corner of Popeshead Alley
  • John Place, bookseller, at Furnivals Inn Gate; Thomas Basset at St. George near Cliffords Inn
  • John Amery, bookseller, at Blackboy over against St. Clement’s Church
  • William Cademan, bookseller, at Popeshead in the New Exchange
  • Thomas Archer, bookseller, under St. Dunstan’s Church in Fleet Street
  • Abisha Brocas in Exeter
  • Ralph Shelmendine in Manchester.

Cost: 5 shillings for 48 pills.

Anthony Colly, A more full discovery of the use and vertue of those golden purging pills eminently helpful in the most inveterate diseases either in young or old; where other medicines prove ineffectual. Found by great study, costs, and pains, and now communicated for the publick good of all that stand in need of their balsamick vertue. Whereunto is added a plain, and short method, whereby every one of an indifferent capacity (by the signs and causes of most diseases of humane bodies) may know under what distemper they labor and how, and by what means my pill effects their relief. (London: Richard Lownes, 1671). 42 pages.

Mr. Elmy, At the blew Ball in Heydon yard in the Little Minories, London, near the Tower, liveth one Mr. Elmy, operator, who prepareth that most excellent and successful arcana, Pilula Homogenea (London, [between 1673–1680]). 2 pages.
Sold by

  • Mr. Elmy at the Blew Ball in Haydon Yard in the Minories
  • Mr. Benjamin Harris at the Stationer’s Arms in the Piazza under the Royal Exchange in Cornhill.

Cost: 3 shillings for 24 pills.

R. Fletcher, Good tydings to the sick and lame: or, The sick-man’s library. Teaching both high and low, rich and poor, next under God, how to prescribe to, or procure ease for the pained, strength for the weak, health for the sick, and cure for sores. Being a true and candid relation of the vertue and uses of four excellent medicines, viz. Arcanum vegetabilium, Pilulae vegetantes, Balsamum vitae, Unguentum refrigerans, whereunto is added, a few of the many testimonies and cures performed by the same … published for the good of all who labour under pain and misery. (London: R. Fletcher, 1674). 16 pages.
Sold by

  • William Rayman at Bred Street near Cheapside, between Angel and Bell.

Cost:

  • Pilulae vegetantes 4 shillings
  • Balsauum Vitae 1 shilling
  • Arcanum vigetabilum 4 shillings for a glass
  • Unguentum Refrigerans 1 shilling.

M. Bromfield, A brief discovery of the true causes, symptoms and effects, of that most reigning disease, the scurvy. Together with the causes, symptoms, and effects of several other dangerous diseases. : Whereunto is added, a short account of those incomparable and most highly approved pills, called pilulae in omnes morbos: or, pills against all diseases (London, 1675). 16 pages.
Sold by

  • M. Bromfield at Blue Balls in Plowyard in Fetter Lane
  • Henry Brome, bookseller, at Gun near West end of St. Paul’s Church
  • Francis Ashborne at Bodies and Sleeves in Cheapside near Friday Street
  • Daniel Bennet, cutler, in Exchange Alley in Cornhill
  • Robert Boulter, bookseller, at Turk’s Head against Royal Exchange in Cornhill
  • John Painter, coffee man, at Johns Coffee House above Royal Exchange in Cornhill
  • Mr. Alkin, confectioner, at Lion and Ball against Cree Church in Leadenhal Street
  • Mr. Tuthil, bookseller, at Chiurgeons Sign near Armitage Bridge
  • Mr. Butther, distiller, Plow and Still against George Inn in Soutwark
  • Mr. Stevens, confectioner, Sugarloaf against Whitecross Stree joining Cripplegate Church
  • Tho. Chew, distiller, at the Greenman near Smithfield bars
  • George Lion, grocer, at Tobacco Roll at Little Queen Street End in High Holborn
  • John Baynes, tin man, at the Birdcage at Cock Lane End against High Holborn Conduit
  • Mrs. Firby, stationer, under Grays Inne Gate in Holborn
  • John Starkey, bookseller, at the Mitre in Fleetstreet near Temple Bar
  • Mr. Preston, bookseller, at Posthouse in Russel Street, Covent Garden
  • Mrs. Duke, coffee seller, against Starr Inn in the Strand near Charing Cross
  • more than 40 shops beyond London

Cost: 6 shillings for 80 pills.

Lionel Lockyer, An advertisement concerning those most excellent pills, called pilulae radiis solis extractae: being an universal medicin, especially in all chronical and difficult distempers as by the ensuing discourse will most clearly appear. / Truly and only prepared by me Lionel Lockyer (London, 1676). 2 pages.
Sold by

  • Tho. Fyge at the Sugarloaf in Bishops Gate
  • John Watts in S. Thomas Southwark

Cost: 4 shillings for 100 pills

M. Bromfield, A brief discovery of the true causes, symptoms and effects, of that most reigning disease, the scurvy. Together with the causes, symptoms, and effects of several other dangerous diseases. : Whereunto is added, a short account of those incomparable and most highly approved pills, called pilulae in omnes morbos: or, pills against all diseases (London, 1678). 16 pages.
Sold by

  • M. Bromfield at the Blue Balls in Plowyard in Fetter Lane
  • more than 50 shops beyond London

Cost: 6 shillings for 80 pills

M. Bromfield, A brief discovery of the chief causes, signs, and effects of that most reigning disease, the scurvy together with the causes, symptoms, & effects, of several other dangerous diseases most usually afflicting mankind. Whereunto is added, a short account of those imcomparable, and most highly approved pills; called pilulae in omnes morbos: or, pills against all diseases. Being the only famous medicine of this age against the scurvy, and most other curable distempers. Prepared and set forth for the publick benefit, by M. Bromfield (London, 1679). 16 pages.
Sold by

  • M. Bromfield at the Blue Balls in Plowyard in Fetter Lane
  • more than 50 shops beyond London

Cost: 3 shillings for 40 pills

M. Bromfield, A brief account of some wonderful cures, lately performed by that well known and most highly approved medicine, called pilulae in omnes morbos, or pills against all diseases. Together with a most useful discovery of the chief signs of the scurvey (London, 1679). 2 pages.
Sold by

  • Henry Brome, bookseller, at the Gun near West end of St. Paul’s Church
  • Robert Boulter, bookseller, Turk’s Head against Royal Exchange in Cornhill
  • John Painter, coffee man, John’s Coffeehouse above Royal Exchange in Cornhill
  • Mrs. Alkin, confectioner, Lion and Ball against Cree Church in Leaden Hall Street
  • Mr. Tuthill, bookseller, Chiurgions Sign near Armitage Bridge
  • Tho. Chew, distiller, Green man near Smithfield Bars
  • Daniel Bennet, cutler, Popeshead Alley in Cornhill
  • Mr. Milward, at Westminster Hall Gate
  • Mrs. Lion, grocer, at Tobacco Roll at Little Queen Street in High Holborn
  • John Bayns, Tin man, Birdcage at Cock Lane against Holborn Conduit
  • John Starkey, bookseller, Mitre in Fleet Street near Temple Bar
  • Robert Bentley, bookseller, Posthouse in Russel Street, Covent Garden
  • Mrs. Duke, coffee seller, against the Star Inne in the Strand near Charing Cross
  • Mrs. Pierson, distiller, at the Golden Still against the Mitre Tavern in Kings Street Westminster
  • Mr. Flaxmore at the Maidenhead near Cherry Garden Stairs on Redrif Wall
  • Mr. Crosdeal, chandler, Kingshead near Battle Bridge in Tooly Street
  • James Allen, haberdasher of hats, at the Hat and Harrow against the Bull Inn within Bishops Gate
  • Thomas Stent, cheesemonger, against Hog Lane in Bishops Gate Street
  • Mr. King, razor maker, at the Flying Horse against St. Clements Church in the Strand
  • Thomas Pilkinton, hosier, against Criple Gate Church
  • Gabriel Kunhold, stationer, Kings Head against the Muse near Charing Cross
  • Edmund Trimmer at the Bear Key near the Custome House
  • Richard Northcot, bookseller, New Fish Street Hill near London Bridge and at his shop in St. Peter’s Alley in Cornhill
  • Humphry Cooper, distiller, Queen Hive stairs
  • Edward Chandler, shoemaker, Old Bedlam Gate into Moor Fields
  • Ralph Smith, bookseller, at the Bible under the Royal Exchange in Cornhill
  • William Marshall, bookseller at the Bible in New Gate Street, at end of Ivy Lane
  • Mr. Man’s, coffee man, in Exchange Alley in Cornhill and at his coffeehouse in Abchurch Lane
  • “my house” at the Blew Balls in Plowyard in Fetter Lane

Cost: 3 shillings for 40 pills

Anon., Pilulae Antiscorbuticae. Pills against that epidemic disease the scurvy, with all its symptoms (London, 1680). 2 pages.
Sold by

  • Mr. Hallifax, ironmonger, next door to Cross Inn, Oxford
  • Mr. Troughton’s, bookseller, near Broad Gate, Conventry
  • Whitehall Coffeehouse in Buckingham Court near Whitehall
  • Mrs. Mores’s, salter, next door to White Hart Inn, Southwark
  • James Neale’s near Redriff Stairs
  • Hen. Barbers in Ship Alley in Well Close
  • “my house” at Carv’d Posts in Stonecutter Street, between Shoe Lane and Fleet Ditch

Cost:

  • Antiscorbuticae 1 shilling 6 pence for 18 pills
  • Solamen miseris 1 shilling 6 pence for a pot
  • Febrifuga 5 shillings
  • Exukiano 3 shillings for purging powder, glass of elixir and pot of balsam

Anon., Pilulae Londinenses. or, the London pills, directed and prepared by a physician of many years standing in the College of Physicians in London, according to true rules of art, good for prevention, as well as the cure of all diseases, wherein purging is proper. (London, [1680?]). 2 pages.
Sold by

  • “several places in London”
  • “my house” at the Arch in Great Winchester Street

Cost: 2 shillings 6 pence

M. Bromfield, A brief discovery of the chief causes, signs and effects of that most reigning disease the scurvy together with the causes, symptoms, & effects of several other dangerous diseases most usually afflicting mankind. : Whereunto is added, a short account of those incomparable, and highly approved pills, called pilulae in omnes morbos : or, pills against all diseases (London, 1685). 16 pages.
Sold by

  • “my house” at the Blue Balls in Plowyard in Fetter Lane
  • more than 50 shops beyond London

Cost: 3 shillings for 40 pills

J.T., In the upper Moor fields, at the Globe and two Balls, liveth J.T. practitioner in astrology, and licensed physitian, who prepareth that successful pill, called Pilula Imperialis vel Sospitalis (London, 1700). 2 pages.
Sold by

  • J. T. at the Globe and Two Balls in Upper Moor Fields
  • J. T. at the Golden Ball in Wine Office Court, Fleet Street

Cost: 2 shillings 6 pence or 5 shillings or 10 shillings “as occasion requireth.”

Pilulae Antipudendagriae—More Early DTC Marketing

Since the late 1990s direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical marketing has become a standard part of society in the U.S. (perhaps also in Australia, where DTC advertising is also legal). Ads in magazines and newspapers, on the internet, TV, or the radio promise that taking some wonder drug will alleviate your suffering from any number of symptoms (often at the risk of some possibly life-threatening side effects). Pfizer, Bayer, Lilly and others did not invent DTC marketing. They are following the footsteps of their esteemed predecessors, 19th-century patent medicine companies who turned an earlier practice into a multi-million dollar industry. In the 1670s and 1680s practitioners of all sorts promised to have a cure for the scurvy epidemic in England.

Toward the beginning of the scurvy epidemic, P.B. published his Pilulae antipudendagriae (1669) describing the French Disease, its symptoms, and his wonder drug.

P.B.’s Pilulae Antipudendagriae (London, 1669) advertised a cure for the French Disease and other venereal diseases.
P.B.’s Pilulae Antipudendagriae (London, 1669) advertised a cure for the French Disease and other venereal diseases.

More than just a cure for the French Disease, P.B. promised that his pilulae antipudendagriae would cure a host of “venereal evils.” Twelve years of experience in Europe and India had proven the effectiveness of his medicines in curing:

The French Disease, and virulent running of the reins [gonorrhea] (which is one and the same disease, as is declared in the Chapter on Signes of the French Disease) but also of all diseases arising from Putrefaction, Fermentation, or Obstruction (if curable) as the Scurvy, Green-sickness, all diseases of Wormes which proceed of Putrefaction. All Itches, which arise by Firmentation of Humours and such like, &c.

After surveying various explanations for the advent of the French Disease, P.B. claims the Spanish brought it back from the West Indies. Rather than find some occult cause or source, P.B. claims it arose from the fermentation of a corrupt seed in “the womb of a most Diabolical American.” Here is the standard Columbian Theory Having sex with an infected woman or

immediately succeed them on a Close-Stool or suck, or sucle or any ways happen to communicate of any contagious pollutions from them.

P.B. reviews the key symptoms of the French Disease in both men and women: fevers, pains in the limbs, burning sensation while urinating, swellings, ulcers. It’s a checklist sufficiently broad to describe most people at some point. He assured readers that if they took his pills, three or four a day, they would be cured of their suffering. Each box of pilulae cost 5 shillings, rather more than the scurvy remedies a couple years later.

He apologizes for not including testimony from satisfied, presumably cured, customers. He explains that customers are understandably embarrassed to admit to having had the French Disease. Curious readers are encouraged to contact P.B. directly for such testimony.

While it’s easy to see all the pieces of standard DTC marketing—a socially stigmatized disease, a checklist of symptoms, a description of its cause and transmission, testimony, and a pill—it also interesting to look back even earlier and compare P.D.’s Pilulae Antipudendagriae to the plague pamphlets that circulated in large numbers from the middle of the 14th century right through the 17th century. Whereas plague pamphlets often included some features, P.B.’s pamphlet as well as those of his contemporaries added testimonies and served to market a particular remedy. P.B. was selling his Pilulae Antipudendagriae to cure he French Disease; a few years later, an anonymous pamphlet was marketing Pilulae Antiscrobuticæ to cure scurvy. Within a decade dozens of pamphlets were advertising various proprietary medicines guaranteed to cure the ailment du jour.

David Nutt is Wrong …

Unfortunately, as David Nutt’s recent comments indicate, journalists, audiences, and scientists themselves too readily assume that universal authority and knowledge inhere science.[1] Expertise in a specific technical scientific domain is readily equated with expertise in general. Knowledge in one domain, however, does not in itself demostrate knowledge in another.

According to The Independent and Reuters and the Times Higher Education,[2] David Nutt has invoked that old chestnut about the anti-science Catholic Church to criticize some contemporary practice: “The outlawing of psychoactive drugs amounts to the worst case of scientific censorship since the Catholic Church banned the works of Copernicus and Galileo.”

Thony C., that tireless monitor of the internet and all-around smart guy, has already pointed out that Nutt’s comment is historically inaccurate: “Not banned, placed on the Index until corrected.” To recap Thony’s post:

  1. The Catholic Church did not ban Copernicus’s De revolutionibus.
  2. When Copernicus’s book was placed on the Index, it was expressly a temporary measure until the offending passages about heliocentricity being a fact were modified to mark it as a hypothesis.
  3. Placing Copernicus’s book on the Index wasn’t particularly effective—offending passages were usually modified so that they could still be read and the Index had little power beyond Italy.

Go read Thony’s whole post and then go read Owen Gingerich’s An Annotated Census of An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (it’s expensive, so borrow a copy from somewhere).

Two aspects of Nutt’s statement bother me:

First, at the most basic level, it is factually incorrect (see point #1 above). If scholars want to step outside their areas of expertise and make claims in other domains, they have an obligation to be accurate—or at least to try to be accurate. Sure, this requires some work, especially when scholars venture beyond their area of expertise, but accuracy is the least we should demand of people purporting to be authorities. Scientists of various sorts regularly and rightly lambast non-scientists for making ludicrous claims about science. Scientists, in turn, should be careful when the tread beyond their domains of expertise lest they make ludicrous claims.

Second, Nutt’s assertion is ambiguous and misleading. His implication that the Catholic Church spoke as a single voice to condemn a book is not supported by history. There were many institutions that censored or tried to censor books: the Index was most closely tied to the Papal States and some Italian states that chose to adopt it. In the Holy Roman Empire, the Jesuits established their own mechanisms for censoring books. But the Jesuit efforts met with limited success as most of the territorial princes had their own systems. French officials compiled their own list of prohibited books and largely ignored the Index. Even in Spain the Index of Prohibited Books differed from the Index Rome.

Beyond the Catholic countries governments understandably felt little compulsion to adopt the Index. And the power of the Index could be just the opposite of what “the Church” intended. In England, far from discouraging people to read condemned books, books seem to have sold better if they were on the Index. John Donne put it most directly: “… forbidden books sell best.”[3]

Whatever the merits of his argument about the effects of making certain drugs illegal, when David Nutt ventured into history he was wrong and misleading. His knowledge about neuropsychopharmacology, psychopharamcology, neuroscience, drug research, or drug policy did not translate into knowledge about the past. Expertise is not fungible.

UPDATE: See Alice Bell’s excellent piece.


  1. While I concentrate on David Nutt’s comments here, the journalists who have reported those comments are culpable for spreading the misinformation. Simple fact checking would have revealed his errors and would have prevented their further spread.  ↩

  2. And now now (according to Google) hundreds of other sites.
    The context for Nutt’s comment is a paper that he and two co-authors published—“Effects of Schedule I drug laws on neuroscience research and treatment innovation” in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (behind paywall)—in which they argue that drug laws and controls impede research into how these drugs work and what therapeutic uses they might have.  ↩

  3. John Donne, Fifty Sermons (1649). Donne was not the only person to think forbidden books sold well Thomas Jackson, in his A Treatise Containing the Originall of Vnbeliefe, Misbeliefe, or Misperswasions Concerning the Veritie, Vnitie, and Attributes of the Deitie (1625) remarked: “Now, as Printers sometimes gaine more by forbidden bookes, then by such as are authorized for publicke sale.”  ↩