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The History of Science on Drugs

Updated: Aug 30

Editor’s Note: Points readers who can remember back to 2011 will recall the great posts that guest blogger and early modern historian of science Matthew Crawford brought our way: thoughtful considerations of “disturbance pharmacopeias” and of the tensions between discovery and invention. Today he concludes his series with us by calling for an “applied metaphysics” in drugs history.

What might the history of science on drugs–or, put less euphoniously, the history of the science of drugs– look like? To answer this, we need to consider how the histories of science and of drugs might inform and engage each other.

Higher Order Thinking

In the early decades of the history of science, now nearly a century ago, the field had little to say about drugs. Many thought of the history of science as a cousin to intellectual history and the history of ideas– an association that derived, in part, from early 20th-century conceptions of science as a predominantly philosophical endeavor, which left the work of actually manipulating the material world to other enterprises like technology and medicine. (Think of the earlier distinctions between “pure” and “applied” science, for example.) Drugs, as part of that material world, did not fall under the purview of early history of science.

As a result of scholarship in the last half century or so, we now understand science as an enterprise involving both the via activa and the via contemplativa, and see scientific practitioners as actively engaged in the material world through interactions with instruments, objects, texts, images, and other people. As noted in a 2007 essay by Ken Alder, historians of science took this materialist turn in the 1970s and 1980s; more recently, even historians of “high science” have focused their attention on material objects and practices “in hopes of anchoring cultural histories that they feared might otherwise drift away upon a hermeneutical sea.” One example, among many, of this recent development is Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps, an account of the history of Einstein’s theory of relativity, in which Galison puts the material and technical challenges of establishing the simultaneity of the clock at the center of the genesis of this paragon of twentieth-century abstract science. (Think of the recent popularity of the notion of “technoscience” to emphasize the entanglement of science and technology in a variety of ways.)

In the midst of this proliferation of interest in the histories of scientific objects and the material culture of science (broadly defined), drugs have received comparatively little attention.

No Ideas but In Things

This is surprising since much recent work on the history of scientific objects offers novel and useful conceptual resources for thinking about drugs. Consider the classic volume, Biographies of Scientific Objects, edited by Lorraine Daston. In her introduction, Daston characterizes the project of writing the biographies of scientific object as one of “applied metaphysics.” Unlike plain old metaphysics that focuses on “the ethereal world of what is always and everywhere from a God’s-eye-viewpoint,” applied metaphysics involves the study of “the dynamic world of what emerges and disappears,” in this case, “from the horizon of working scientists.” Daston further explains that this approach is an attempt (one of many as of late) to bridge the divide between realists, who tend to see the natural world as something “out there” to be discovered, and constructivists, who tend to see the natural world as something “invented” by human activity. Applied metaphysics, then, seeks to treat objects, especially scientific objects, as both real and constructed, as both natural and historical. As I suggested in my second post in this series, drugs are precisely the kinds of objects that straddle this divide between nature and human artifice.

Of all the things out there in the world – scientific objects or not – drugs seems to be one class of phenomena that would benefit from this applied metaphysics approach. After all, as I’ve mentioned, we still know relatively little about the history of the conceptual and material processes whereby drugs became “modern” some time in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The ontology of drugs – as a general class of phenomena – seems to experience a fairly radical shift in this period – from plants parts to chemical compounds. With the exception of Ursula Klein and Wolfgang Lefèvre’s recent Materials in Eighteenth-Century Science, which treats the historical development of “materials science” in this period, we’ve seen scant discussion of how or why this shift occurred.

The Scientific Method, ca. 16th Century

When considering pharmacy and medicine in the early modern period, one cannot help but be struck by the complexity and challenges that scientific practitioners faced in trying to make sense of drugs without the aids of nineteenth-century chemistry, biology and medicine. Many things could and did go wrong in the production and consumption of early modern drugs– from the collection of plant parts to the harrowing long-distance journeys (dealing with the ever-present threats of moisture and rot) to the fraudulent practices that pervaded the drug trade and medical profession to the uncertainties of administering drugs at the bedside. For those that attempted to understand how and why certain plant parts showed efficacy against this or that illness, there must have seemed precious little stable ground on which to construct a theoretical or philosophical framework for making sense of things. It is that process that is so fascinating – if not awe-inspiring – given the instability of drugs and the materials used to make them in the early modern period.

Let us return, for a moment, to Lorraine Daston’s introduction to Biographies of Scientific Objects.  Here, she makes the suggestion that “scientific objects lack the obviousness and obduracy of quotidian objects.” To a certain extent, this seems a valid characterization of scientific objects. After all, many of the objects of scientific inquiry today are not perceptible to our senses (at least, not without the help of complex and costly technologies). Scientific objects often have a subtlety and abstractness to them; just think of the wonderfully variably and colorfully named sub-atomic particles.  From this perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that the contributions to Biographies of Scientific Objects focus on such subtle and abstract phenomena as the “preternatural” and mathematical entities in the early modern period, value theories of economics, society, culture, the nineteenth-century conception of the ether, mortality, and cytoplasmic particles. This all makes for interesting reading but, at the same time, one wonders about other phenomena– like drugs.

Cytoplasm: Subtle, Abstract (and a Little Psychedelic) (Journal of Cell Biology)

After all, it would seem fair to say that not all scientific objects lack “obviousness and obduracy.” Moreover, for much of human history, many drugs were certainly not lacking in “obviousness and obduracy” for they were composed of the most obvious and obdurate parts of plants – like roots, leaves, and barks. Yet, these plant-based or plant-derived drugs often became objects of intense scientific inquiry – in some cases stretching across several centuries.

Now, perhaps, one could argue that drugs did not become properly “scientific” until some time in the 19th century with the advances in chemistry, biology, epidemiology, and medicine (to name a few fields). Only then, with the rise of scientific medicine (and pharmacy), were scientists – as they were now known thanks to William Whewell – able to identify and extract new entities – mostly alkaloids – from plant parts, including quinine from cinchona bark, morphine from opium, and caffeine from coffee, just to name a few. It’s a reasonable proposition with one major exception. What are we to do with the drugs that pre-dated the intellectual and technical ability to isolate specific compounds from plant parts? That is, what are we to do with early modern drugs? Can we really say that a plant-based drug used before 1800 was any less scientific than one used after 1800?

To those that have read my previous posts, my answer will be predictable: “no.” If we look at early modern Europe and the Atlantic World, we know that physicians, pharmacists, naturalists, and natural philosophers had their own scientific, philosophical, and medical explanations of the therapeutic utility and physiological efficacy of the plant-derived drugs that they used. These explanations were often tied to the reigning medical theories of their time, such as the humoral theory of Galen or the chemical philosophy of the seventeenth century. One simple way of convincing ourselves that drugs were scientific objects in early modern Europe is to look at the instances in which new drugs – often, from the so-called “New World” – were introduced. Often, these drugs gave rise to considerable debate in the medical, philosophical and scientific communities of the time, precisely because they challenged reigning theories of anatomy, physiology, pharmacy and therapeutics. Cinchona bark offers a good example. Many physicians had serious reservations about using the bark to treat fevers since, according to humoral theory, cinchona bark was a hot medicament and should not be used to treat a hot disease, like fever, which required a cooling medicament.

Big Science-- the Prequel

Many drugs, but especially plant-based or plant-derived drugs, present interesting opportunities to further explore the history of science through objects. Applied metaphysics offers a framework for making the ontological shifting of drugs intelligible and open to further interrogation. In particular, the transition of most drugs from being composed of more “obvious and obdurate” materials in the 18th century to being composed of materials lacking in obviousness and obduracy soon thereafter seems a crucial process in the larger histories of scientific objects (as a class of objects) and of objectivity (as a scientific practice or perspective). Here, I have tried to explore some ways in which it might be worthwhile to pursue the history of science on drugs – for both the early modern and modern periods. Ultimately, greater interaction between the histories of science and of drugs may provide new and useful insight into two key phenomena of the modern world, phenomena whose histories may be intertwined in ways that we have yet to imagine.

#Drugs #History


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