Category: Literature & Scholarship

Don’t Try Pre-Modern Medicine at Home!

Yvette Hunt’s new translation of the Medicina Plinii is a welcome addition to the history of medicine, particularly for those who don’t have the linguistic training to read it in Latin.1 I can imagine it finding a place in the unit on medicine in my Introduction to the History of Science. 2

Hunt’s English translation of the Medicina Plinii

While the text should be useful as a tool for introducing students to the history of medicine, the disclaimer at the front suggests that the author (or the publisher’s attorney) worries that some people will read it as a how-to manual.

Stunningly, the legal department thinks this English translation of a pre-modern medical text needs a “Don’t Try This At Home” disclaimer.

Do not try these at home

The advice outlined in this text was meant for an ancient audience and does not constitute modern medical advice.
Not only was the vast majority of ancient medicine ineffectual, in some cases it was injurious to patient health. Many of the medicaments used are toxic, and even those which are not are dangerous as it is impossible to determine how an individual might react to chemicals they contain. Yes, these remedies can be considered natural, but natural does not mean safe!
This research was conducted for historical purposes only, and the authors are not responsible for the effects on anyone who experiments with these treatments.

As much as I would like to think the legal department is being overly cautious here, I would not be surprised to hear of somebody trying these treatments in the name of some misguided commitment to a twisted sense of homeopathic remedies. I can imagine the affluent raw water fans in Silicon Valley shelling out $124 (+ tax and shipping) for this book and sharing their favorite recipes.


  1. Or the other languages into which it has been translated.  ↩

  2. In fact, I placed a rush order through our library so I could use it in this coming semester, despite the price.  ↩

Notes on West’s Textual Criticism

Random thoughts from M.L. West’s Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique. In one section West surveys “Various causes of textual discrepancy.” Notably, although many a “textual discrepancy” is an error, West is careful to allow for other types of variations and different causes. Under the category “semi-conscious and unconscious changes” West includes assimilation:

West naturally considers mistakes in his students’ exams as forms of textual errors.

There are several ways in which an individual word may be miswritten without having been misread. By far the commonest way is partial assimilation to some other word nearby. Endings are particularly liable to be assimilated, bringing confusion to the syntax. [West offers a number of Greek examples.] … the error is entirely mental, not visual; and in a batch of examination scripts which I had to mark in 1967 I noted no less than 77 slips of the pen of the assimilative type, e.g., ‘a critique of the Roman of his time and of human nature in general’ (‘Rome’ assimilated to the coming ‘human’); ‘bread, not oxen was the only food known to Dicaeopolis which was put into an oxen’ (for ‘an oven’).

Other standard types of psychological error are haplography, dittography, and simple omission. Haplography means writing once what ought to be written twice, e.g., defended instead of defendendum; dittography is the opposite, reduplication of a syllable, word, or longer unit. My examination scripts produced fourteen examples of dittography (‘renonown’ for ‘renown’, etc., but more often doubling of a short world like ‘be’ or ‘of’), only three of haplography.

Three thoughts came to mind when I read these paragraphs:

  1. In what must be related to Maslow’s hammer comment,[1] West here seems obligated to consider student errors within a taxonomy of manuscript variations. Must be really odd to see all written errors as some nameable form of “textual discrepancy.”
  2. What professor has the time and energy to tally and classify student errors? Seriously? And to what end?
  3. Who today would casually refer to student mistakes in a scholarly work on textual criticism? So quaint.

A few pages further on, still in the textual discrepancy section, West says:

Finally, it must be noted that one corruption often leads to another, some efford[sic.] of interpretation on the part of the scribe being usually involved. …

I confess, this sentence caused me, the reader, some effort. I wondered, “Is ‘efford’ a word? What does it mean?” So I pulled down the “Dvandva-Follis” volume of my OED and checked. No. There on pages 86 and 87 it clearly shows no word between “efforce” and “effore.”[2] I find it vaguely amusing to find a textual error (let‘s call it what it is) in a book discussing textual errors.


  1. Abraham Maslow of pyramid fame reportedly wrote on page 15 in his Psychology of Science: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as is it were a nail.” I have not confirmed that Maslow did, in fact, write that sentence. Maybe one day I’ll put in the effort to check, but today is not that day.  ↩

  2. Yes, I know the online OED would have required less effort, but it still would have required effort. Moreover, searching the online version is less fun. I doubt, for example, if I had searched the online OED that I would have noticed “effraction: breaking open (a house); burglary.” Sure, I’ll probably never use effraction, but I’m happy to know it exists.  ↩

Moving beyond Heroic Geniuses

Historiann recently reflected on the preponderance of best-selling history books written by men and about men: last year 21 of the 23 best-selling history books were written by men. As she pointed out, audiences never seem to tire of biographies recounting the heroic man who has somehow contributed to our modern world. While she focused her attention on biographies of the “Founding Fathers,” much of what she said applies equally to history of science, e.g.,

…These biographies are also invested in a particularly modern kind of subjectivity, that of the heroic individual who bends history to his will. He’s a man of singular genius, one whose fortunes aren’t made by his family, commuity, or the times in which he lived.

…Traditional biographies like these commemorate only some kinds of power and politics, and avoid the rest.… Stories about the sagacity, virtue, and political genius of our so-called “Founding Fathers” sell like hotcakes.

History of science often defaults to stories about the heroic individual who bends nature to his will, the man of singular genius, whose achievements weren’t made possible by his family, his community, or the times in which he lived, but often despite that family, that community, or those times. Such stories commemorate certain kinds of power and knowledge while ignoring or explaining away others.

Two recent but very different examples—one popular one scholarly—illustrate these points. “These 5 Men Were Scientific Geniuses. They Also Thought Magic Was Real” marvels at the genius of Galileo (and Kepler) despite their lingering belief in astrology, at Newton’s (and Boyle’s) despite their dabbling in alchemy, at Paracelsus’s despite his reliance on natural magic.[1] These “geniuses” contributed to modern science despite their community and the times in which they lived. Internet audiences cannot get enough of these posts—this one has been shared nearly 10,000 times in four days.

Newton and the ascent of water in plants” offers a more scholarly example. Here a modern scientist celebrates Newton’s work as a “perceptive” or “prescient” version of what he knows/does today:

It should come as little surprise that Newton’s genius was capable of presciently imagining the germ of an idea explaining the ascent of sap in plants some two centuries before botanists came up with it for themselves.

The latest effort to see Isaac Newton as founding father of all modern science.
The latest effort to see Isaac Newton as founding father of all modern science.

The author has extracted from Newton’s notebooks a single paragraph, which he then interprets as a forerunner of his own research. Here the lure of commemoration prevents the author from considering this paragraph as part of a larger notebook that includes all sorts of other, less laudable (at least from our perspective) forms of knowledge—e.g., just a few pages earlier Newton cites the Bible in his reflections on the earth:

Its conflagration testified 2 Peter 3d, vers 6, 7, 10, 11, 12. The wiked (probably) to be punished thereby 2 Pet: 3 chap: vers 7.

The succession of worlds, probable from Pet 3c. 13v. in which text an emphasis upon the word wee is not countenanced by the Originall. Rev 21c. 1v. Isa: 65c, 17v. 66c, 22v. Days & nights after the judgment Rev 20c, 10 v.

Instead, the modern researcher sanitizes Newton’s thought, trimming from as if irrelevant those bits that don’t contribute to his modern science. Moreover, the ideal of the lone genius requires that Newton’s knowledge sprang from his head alone:

Reclusive and secretive, it’s doubtful he [Newton] gained botanical inspiration from conversations with others at Cambridge University interested in plants. Although his contemporaries were certainly thinking about plant anatomy and function around the same time.

The desire to celebrate the heroic genius struggling alone to discover truths about the world stems, at least in part, from the role that discovery plays in science and histories of science. Although discovery is often considered a forward-looking process, it is rather a retrospective judgement by scientists that seeks to assert a set of values and commend current research and researchers by linking them to exemplary practices.[2] It is no accident that “Newton and the ascent of water in plants” begins by praising Newton as “one of the greatest ‘natural philosophers’ that ever lived” and concludes by associating him with “another founding father of plant physiology.”

What would it look like to tell non-heroic histories of science? Can we make such histories compelling so that people would listen?


  1. The post radically misrepresents the historical practice of astrology and its place in early modern thought. The entries are Linnaeus and Brahe are too confused to merit comment.  ↩

  2. For more on discovery, see “Discovery in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure ↩

20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science

And now, for a little late summer levity.[1]

In an effort to make reviewing manuscripts easier and faster, I put together this little template for the 20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science.[2] Now, instead of having to read through the entire manuscript, trying to identify and evaluate the argument and sources, you just have to toss a die a few times (see instructions on template).

20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science, with instructions.
20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science, with instructions.

A pdf version is available as a download if you want to make your own.


  1. I should emphasize: this is a joke. One that arose during a recent conversation with a colleague about how much time and effort it takes to review a manuscript.  ↩

  2. This die was inspired by the 20-sided die at Pocket Art Director™. The template was clearly adapted (nearly copied—so if you are Pocket Art Director™ and are you upset, let me know so I can remove it) from Pocket Art Director™’s Print My Own template. The “Like” and “Dislike” icons I used were designed by Eugen Belyakoff from the Noun Project: Like and Dislike  ↩

History of Science Pamphlets

Some time back I stumbled across Brain Washing From Phone Towers and was immediately intrigued by anybody producing pamphlets today,[1] especially pamphlets that deal with any aspect of the history of science.

Sarah Nicholls is the genius behind Brain Washing From Phone Towers, informational pamphlets about this, that, and the other thing.
Sarah Nicholls is the genius behind Brain Washing From Phone Towers, informational pamphlets about this, that, and the other thing.

Out of the blue, I sent an email to the woman, Sarah Nicholls (a printer in Brooklyn), behind Brain Washing From Phone Towers. She responded quickly and sent two of her pamphlets, one on Isaac Newton and one on the Escape Wheel.

The cover of Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.
The cover of Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.

I immediately read and enjoyed both. They do a wonderful job of combining history, science, and the present in an entertaining and informative way—they are pamphlets, after all.

Newton’s three laws from Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.
Newton’s three laws from Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.

I particularly like the designs and cuts blocks for the illustrations that adorn each pamphlet (see this post for her work designing the image of wave propagation in the “Action at a Distance” pamphlet). Isaac Newton, Isaac Barrow, Edmund Halley, and Gottfried Leibniz all come up, as do the Royal Society, mathematics, alchemy, scriptures, and the plague.

Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet.
Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet.

“Escape Wheel” is about keeping time. Sundials, water clocks, pendulum clocks, and other mechanical clocks. Christiaan Huygens, William Clement, John Harrison, and the problem of longitude come up.

Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet, section on the longitude problem.
Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet, section on the longitude problem.

As with any good pamphlet, the “Escape Wheel” gestures to politics. In a closing note:

Despite the many advantages of new technologies, there are holes in the technological narrative as well.**
**The depletion of scarce resources, the minuscule lifespan of digital devices, profits from the mining of raw materials for electronics funding civil war, coal-powered factories in China producing new devices, growing piles of e-waste, the death of privacy, the rise of the surveillance state, and the burning of more coal to power data centers and wireless networks, so that all our citizens can enjoy instantaneous access to funny pictures of our pets, instagrams of our lunch, and oceans of amateur porn.

Here we get an idea of how she put together the illustrations for “Escape Wheel.” Peruse Sarah Nicholls’s blog to find glimpses of how she designs and prints her pamphlets.


  1. Given the number of posts on pamphlets here, my interest in contemporary pamphleteering should be no surprise.  ↩