Item of the Month: A Compleat History of Drugs


By Lisa, O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

In light of the recent National Drug Facts Week, it seems a good time to ask: what constitutes a drug? The answer has changed dramatically over time and place, as have the boundaries drawn between medicines, pharmaceuticals, and illicit drugs (an issue explored recently in a 20th-century context by Dr. David Herzberg’s lecture “The Other Drug War: Prescription Drug Abuse and Race in 20th Century America”).

Title page, Pomet, Compleat History of Drugs, 1725

Title page, Pomet, Compleat History of Drugs, 1725. Click to enlarge.

For the 17th-century French apothecary Pierre Pomet (1658-1699) the plant, animal, and mineral products considered drugs included a broad range of substances, from foodstuffs and materia medica with well-established uses in European pharmacopeias; to substances like tobacco, indigo, sugar, and opium, considered new and exotic by Europeans exposed to them through exploration and colonial expansion; and remedies from ground mummies to unicorn horns.

Such broadly ranging subject matter encompassing animals, spices, plants, dyestuffs, and the locales and methods of their production, makes Pierre Pomet’s an engrossing and appealing work. The volume featured here is the second (1725) edition of Pomet’s A Compleat History of Drugs in translation, first published in 1684 as Histoire Generale des Drogues and running to multiple editions over the course of the 18th century.

Pomet ran a well-regarded and fashionable apothecary store in Paris, and was appointed chief druggist to Louis XIV. His work drew its authority from his extensive travels in Europe, where he collected specimens, recipes, and knowledge. He comprehensively covered the new materials and medicines made accessible to European markets through Dutch, Portuguese, British, and Spanish expansion.

Indigo preparation, plate 35, Compleat History of Drugs

Indigo preparation, plate 35, Compleat History of Drugs. Click to enlarge

The volume emphasizes the exotic nature of these materials and their sources, demonstrating, as Sandra Sherman argues, the “cross-over” appeal of Enlightenment science to popular audiences, combining both utilitarian medical advice and vicarious access to stories and images of far-flung places and peoples.

Yet, one of the products most exotic to modern eyes, mummy, was in fact a well-established cure by the time Pomet was writing. The use of mummy was common in European medicine from the 12th century to at least the 17th century. In tracing the history of its use, Warren Dawson argues that the logic behind the use of ground powders ostensibly obtained from Egyptian mummies was based on the medical properties believed to be contained in natural bitumen (found in parts of the Middle East). The Persian word mumia was used to describe bitumen, an established component of ancient pharmacopeias. The resins used in embalming mummies had a bitumen-like appearance, and the word mumia began to be used to describe them and the bodies they preserved.

Mummy, plate 69,  Compleat History of Drugs

Mummy, plate 69, Compleat History of Drugs. Click to enlarge.

Over time, European apothecaries began using ground mummies instead of the (harder to source) natural bitumen and ascribing the efficacy of mumia for the treatment of wounds and tumors and numerous ailments, including gout and paralysis, to the properties of the dead body itself. The history of the use of human remains in medical treatments is a long and varied one, which continues to fascinate today.

You can find out more about Pomet and A Compleat History of Drugs online at Res Obscura and The Shelf, in  “The Exotic World of Pierre Pomet’s A Compleat History of Druggs  by Sandra Sherman, and Jordan Kellman’s  “Nature, networks, and expert testimony in the colonial Atlantic: The case of cochineal.”