Drug Production in the Seventeenth Century

17th-century surgeon seeks for medicinals on Jamestown Island in a detail from a painting by NPS artist Sydney King
17th-century Jamestown doctor seeks native medicinals

detail of painting from NPS artist Sydney King

"If there were any conscience in men, it would make their harts to bleed to heare the pitifull murmurings and out-cries of our sick men. . . ." George Percy, Observations

Although Jamestown was far from a lone island of sickness in the 17th century, the early settlers seemed to have more than their fair share of ill health. Poor diet, foul water and extremes of climate lowered their resistance; diseases ranging from smallpox to scurvy could carry them off easily.

The colonists were afflicted with bodily suffering, but they fought back as best they could. From the employment of tried-and-true remedies to the introduction of local substances into the traditional pharmacopeia, physicians and laymen worked to control an appalling mortality rate.

Most European medicine up until the Renaissance was based on Greek and Roman texts, particularly those of Hippocrates, Aristotle, Dioscorides and Galen. In addition to providing lists of plant materials and their medicinal uses, these sources taught that illness was the result of imbalance between the four humors of the body (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood). They also stressed a reliance on theory rather that on direct observation.

Typically, a physician working in the Galenic tradition diagnosed a disease by determining which humor was out of alignment. He then treated the condition by either removing an excess of one substance or attempting to augment a weaker one. The former course was usually the approach of choice and attainable by either physical or chemical means. Venesection (bloodletting), sweating, blistering or clystering (administering enemas) were common physical means to balance a patient. By using powerful drugs, the sufferer could be induced to sweat, drool, urinate, defecate, cry or vomit to remove an imbalanced humor.

In addition to humoral theory, doctors could draw from a vast store of ancient herbal knowledge, derived through a combination of empiricism and application of sometimes bizarre theories. Dioscorides' text describes over 500 plants and their uses.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, monasteries and local healers kept medicinal herbal lore alive in Western Europe. In the Mediterranean regions, however, Arabs dominated the culture in general and scientific thought in particular. When Crusaders from the West made contact with the Moslems, they "rediscovered" much lost learning, adding it to their more limited lore.

Among its many contributions, Arabic medicine gave Western Europe a new text to train physicians. Drawing heavily on the Greek and Roman sources mentioned above, ibn-Sina (Avicenna), a flamboyant and successful Arabian physician, stressed the reliance on theory over empirical observation. His Canon of Medicine was considered the highest medical authority until well into the 17th century.

Pharmacopeia was also altered by cultural contacts made during the Crusades. Heavily sweetened and spiced concoctions made from exotic materials became popular, and distillation was employed for the first time to extract alcohol and essential oils. Opium came into use in the west. At the same time, however, the old-fashioned herbal lore practiced by laypeople fell out of favor with the professional medical community, eventually coming to be seen as a threat to officially-sanctioned practice.

In the first half of the 16th century, there emerged from the alchemic tradition of Paracelsus an aversion to Aristotelian traditions and the recognition that doctors should rely more upon their personal observation of illness than on ancient texts and theories. Paracelsus, a controversial Swiss philosopher and scientist, also introduced the use of metals such as mercury and antimony in treatment of disease.

Physicians had never dismissed the healing properties of common plants out of hand. By the reign of Elizabeth I, the knowledge of herbs was considered an indispensable part of the training of housewives, stockmen and doctors alike. The age of the herbal had begun. These books, which described botanicals and their usages, were often beautifully illustrated and usually drawn largely from earlier sources. The best-known herbals are those of John Gerard (published in 1597) and Nicholas Culpepper (published in 1648).

New knowledge in medicine came with the discovery of new curative substances in the Western Hemisphere. Colonists brought the old, familiar plants with them from home, but they were also willing to experiment with the unknown. Common remedies discovered during this time included tobacco (good for everything from worms to lung congestion), Peruvian Bark (from which is derived quinine, the anti-malarial medicine), sassafras (at some times worth its weight in gold, since it was considered a sovereign cure for syphilis) jalap and ipecac (both powerful purgatives).

Physicians, whose training required many years of study and a large cash base, were few and, in any case, too expensive for the average person to afford. Instead, many people consulted apothecaries, who, until the reign of James I, had belonged to the Company of Grocers. James created the Apothecaries' Society in 1617, and by 1634, over 150 apothecaries were licensed in London alone. In addition to supplying drugs, these men also diagnosed and prescribed for illnesses. Even the less costly apothecaries were beyond the means of the majority of the population, however, which relied on a local herb woman or cunning man instead, with the occasional trip to the barber or surgeon for bloodletting or toothdrawing.

Production of plant-derived cures, whether by a physician, an apothecary or a layperson, could be a complex process. Some medicinal substances were imported from other countries. Others had to be gathered, either from the wild or the garden. Most colonists with a kitchen garden grew medicinal herbs such as hyssop, lavender, comfrey and fennel interspersed with the vegetables and flowers.

Timing was important in gathering botanicals because weather, temperature, the time of day and the phase of the moon all were assumed to affect the potency of the drugs produced. Seeds, stems, leaves, bark, flowers and roots could all be used, depending on the plant and treatment. Most botanicals were air-dried, hung upside down in a hot, dry place or cut into pieces and dried on screens.

After the herbs were completely dried, they could be transferred to opaque containers for longer storage. Whenever possible, the plant material was left intact until actually needed for treatment; grinding or powdering tended to decrease its usefulness by dissipating essential oils.

Some medicines consisted of only one botanical, and were referred to as "simples." Compounds were combinations of inactive and at least two active ingredients.

Preparation methods varied as well. Infusions were boiled for ten minutes over the fire to produce a stronger medicine. Decoctions were produced when boiling might destroy potency, combining the drug with hot water and leaving the mixture to steep for hours or sometimes days.

In some cases, the oils, resins or waxes of the plant were not water soluble and had to be dissolved in alcohol, resulting in a tincture. Syrups were produced when the plant material was added to water, boiled down and combined with a sweetener like honey which also acted as a preservative. Essential oils could be extracted from botanicals by steam distillation or by soaking large quantities of the plant in small amounts of oil for a long time. Pills were produced with the combination of active ingredients with a filler such as wax, bread dough or gum arabic.

Treatments could also be external. Creams and ointments were herbal oils combined with beeswax or fat to produce a compound which was solid at room temperature. Compresses, poultices and plasters were plant materials applied externally, usually in combination with heat or moisture.

Botanical remedies remained important medicinally. By the middle of the 19th century, organic chemists were beginning to isolate specific active ingredients in medicinal plants, but 80% of pharmaceuticals were still derived from botanical sources by 1900. This would soon change. Due to cost of production and storage, as well as the varied concentration of an active ingredient from locale to locale and even from plant to plant, drug companies concentrated on replicating cheaper synthetic versions of active ingredients. Although chemists have been largely successful, at least 25% of prescriptions filled by pharmacists today contain active ingredients from plants.

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Kowalchik, Claire and Hylton, William, editors. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs.

Miller, Johnathan. The Body in Question.

Notestein, Wallace. The English People on the Eve of Colonization 1603-1630.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic.

Wilbur, C. Keith. Revolutionary Medicine.

Williams, Guy. The Age of Agony.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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