The History of Drugs from Ambergris to Zedoary

Benjamin Breen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Society of Fellows, Columbia University, and an Assistant Professor of History at UC Santa Cruz.

“A book of high character was published in France at the conclusion of the seventeenth century, the General History of Drugs, by Monsieur Pomet, chief apothecary to the King,” wrote Charles Dickens in 1857. “In this book M. Pomet expressed great indignation at the spirit of adulteration that had crept into the mummy trade. It was as hard then as now to get one’s drugs in any reasonable state of purity.”

Even in Dickens’s time—when luminaries including Abraham Lincoln habitually consumed mercury mixed with things like honey and licorice—the contents of an early modern pharmacopeia provoked bafflement and wonder. The good Monsieur Pomet indeed recommended powdered Egyptian mummy as a cure-all, and warned his readers to be careful about forged mummies (recommending that they take care to purchase entire hands or limbs to make sure they were getting the genuine article). But this wasn’t his only unusual prescription: other entries in his Histoire Generale des Drogues (1684) included the horns of no less than five different types of unicorn, mandrake root, powdered scorpions, “dragon blood,” and several preparations of opium.

In both Pomet and Dickens’ time, pharmacopeias and apothecary’s manuals straddled the worlds of alchemy, medicine, and poison. Their counterparts today have a similar category-hopping appeal. The books listed below range widely, from the Pulitzer-prize winning poet Odell Shepard’s Harry Potter-esque history of unicorns and Marcy Norton’s influential recent academic history of tobacco and chocolate to Alexander and Anne Shulgin’s utterly unique guide to various psychedelics and “entactogens” of their own manufacture. What binds them together is a fascination with that boundary-crossing, protean, and endlessly fascinating class of substances we call “drugs.”

Places to Start

In what is probably the best general history of drugs, Courtwright makes a convincing case for a “psychoactive revolution” between roughly 1500 and 1900, such that “millions of ordinary people throughout the world could lead, in neurochemical terms, a life-style unimaginable for even the wealthiest five hundred years earlier.”

Considering its cultural and political importance as a driver of drug violence on the US-Mexico border, the history of cocaine was strangely impoverished before Gootenberg got his hands on it. This is by far the best global history of that numbing and highly addictive drug, which emerged out of a very different context of medical and ritual use of coca leaves in the Andean world.

Digging In

Alexander and Anne Shulgin’s PiKHAL (short for Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved) is a personal history written by the celebrated UC Berkeley-trained biochemist and his wife, who were known for self-experimenting with various novel drugs of their own manufacture (Shulgin’s most famous invention is MDMA). It is also, uniquely, an eccentric but highly detailed chemistry manual.

What was it like to encounter tobacco for the first time? What about chocolate, which before the eighteenth century was typically drunk cold and mixed with chili peppers? Norton’s outstanding history of these two beloved yet controversial drugs evokes both the strangeness of the encounter with New World substances in Europe and the indigenous contexts of ceremonial use in Pre-Columbian America.

Although the environmental historian Richard Grove is concerned with ecological change on tropical islands rather than drugs per se, his book is an essential read for anyone interested in the larger environmental contexts of the drug trade. In particular, Grove argues that French and British attempts to establish monocultures of valuable spices and drugs on tropical islands in the eighteenth century led to some of the earliest scientific observations of species loss and ecological damage due to human actions.

New Moves

Peruvian or “Jesuit’s” Bark, also known as quina or cinchona, numbered among the most valuable and important New World drugs. Today, the original plant is largely forgotten, but the powerful fever-fighting alkaloid it harbored (quinine) lives on as the basis for a family of anti-malarial drugs and as the substance behind the bitter kick of a gin and tonic.

This groundbreaking investigation of healing plant knowledge and pharmaceuticals in Sub-Saharan Africa is grouped into highly original chapters like “Take Grains of Paradise for Love” and “Take Kalahari Hoodia for Hunger.” Osseo-Assare is especially good on the question of how European bioprospecting stripped plants of their larger social and religious contexts.

Voices and Lives

Although this groundbreaking work of psychology by the brother of novelist Henry James mainly concerns itself with non-pharmacological altered states, it also reflects James’s extensive self-experimentation with the intoxicating effects of nitrous oxide, which he described as producing “an intense metaphysical illumination” that allowed him to finally understand Hegel!

Odell Shepard was a man of many talents: a Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut, Yale professor, and celebrated poet, he also found time to write this delightful history of unicorns which delves in loving detail into the purported medical virtues of “unicorn horn” and other mythical animal parts.

Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, first published in the seventeenth century, is one of the all-time classics of herbal medicine. Known for his unusual classificatory scheme, which grouped medical drugs according to their supposed astrological configurations, Culpeper’s book is a treasure trove of centuries’ worth of amassed knowledge of European materia medica.