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.”

Mother Eve’s Pudding Redux


By Erin Albritton, Head of the Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory

Last month, we kicked off National Poetry Month by sharing a rhyming recipe for Eve’s Pudding from our manuscript collection. Although charming, the recipe lacked the level of specificity to which most modern cooks have become accustomed. To solve this problem, cooking teacher and food historian Steve Schmidt (who will be delivering NYAM’s Friends of the Rare Book Room lecture on May 23rd) was kind enough to send along the following adaptation, together with a recipe for Cold Sweet Sauce that is scrumptious when drizzled over the top:

For the pudding:
3/4 cup (3 ounces) fine dry bread crumbs, plus a handful for coating the basin or bowl
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (3 ounces) sugar
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp grated or ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3 medium (about 1 1/4 pounds) firm, dry apples, such as Golden Delicious
2/3 cup (3 ounces) currants
3 large eggs, beaten until light and frothy
6 Tbsp (3 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 Tbsp strained fresh lemon juice

For the Cold Sweet Sauce:
1 stick of butter
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1-2 Tbsp of brandy or lemon juice
A pinch of nutmeg

Very generously grease a 5- to 6-cup heatproof bowl or pudding basin with butter or solid vegetable shortening. Sprinkle the inside of the bowl with a handful of dry bread crumbs, tilt the bowl in all directions until coated and then tap the excess crumbs out.

Mix the 3/4 cup crumbs, sugar, flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt in a bowl. Peel the apples and grate on the shredding plate of a box grater down to the cores. Stir the apples and currants into the crumb mixture, then the beaten eggs, then the melted butter and lemon juice. Pack the mixture into the prepared bowl, cover tightly with foil, set an upside-down plate on top of the foil, and steam the pudding for 3 hours in sufficient simmering water to reach halfway up the sides of the bow

While the pudding is steaming, make sauce by melting butter and whisking in sugar, brandy and nutmeg. Remove the pudding from the pot and let rest 15 minutes before unmolding. Drizzle (or drench!) with sauce and enjoy.

Below is a photo essay documenting one staff member’s kitchen adventure making this recipe (click to enlarge and open photo gallery). The next time you’ve got a couple of hours and find yourself craving a delicious dessert (with a bit of history), give Eve’s Pudding a try . . . you’ll be glad you did!