Samir Boumediene

Researcher’s profile



The accreditation of new drugs at court and the early “public health” policies at the end of the 17th century: the case of Peruvian bark and Ipecacuanha

This paper aims to explore the role played by court in the accreditation and the diffusion of drugs during early modern period. It focuses more particularly on the case of two new drugs brought from Americas : Peruvian bark, mainly used against intermittent fevers, and ipecacuanha, mainly used against dysenteries.

On a one hand, the diffusion of new drugs is linked to courtesan intrigues. Selling a new remedy in a court is indeed a way, for some practitioners, to get rich and famous. The case of the apothecary Robert Talbot, who sold a secret febrifuge prepared with Peruvian bark, is a very good example. In Charles II’s court in London , its secret remedy get a great reputation. Talbor was even knighted by Charles II and named as his personal physician. After 1678, in Paris and Versailles, he sold his “Remede anglois”, and raised the jealousy of the First Physician of the King, Antoine d’Acquin, as it can be read in Madame de Sévigné’s correspondences. In 1681, Louis XIV decided to give a 2000£ of annual pension to the English apothecary and to buy his secret, protecting it until his death, which occurred in 1681. In 1682, the secret was then revealed in the whole France. Considered as a useful drug, Peruvian bark ought to be spread. But such an accreditation process even got further when the King himself was cured by the Peruvian drug, in 1686. After his recovery, a large number of leaflets were published in order to spread the proper way to administer a so useful drug.

From the private and aristocratic use of Peruvian bark to its public utilisation, the passage of the drug through the court is a key moment, as it seems to introduce what looks like to an early public health politic. From this point of view, the case of Ipecacuanha is also of a great interest. Introduced in 1686 at Versailles by the Dutch physician Jean-Adrien Helvétius, who cured Louis XIV with it, it was rapidly trusted. Helvétius obtained a pension and a patent to sell his remedy. But he also obtained from the King the authorisation to experience the remedy on poor sick people of the Hôtel Dieu de Paris. After his recovery, the King aimed to spread the use of the drug to all the people and more particularly to the equipages who frequently suffered of dysentery. In other words, the healing of the King didn’t lead to a private and distinguished use, but to political use lying on two main aspects: spreading the use of the drug, and experiencing it to make safer its administration.

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