February 4

GUEST CURATOR:  Maia Campbell

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Feb 4 - 2:3:1766 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (February 3, 1766)

“A Large Assortment of Medicines, chymical and galenical.”

This advertisement brings a variety of goods to the table, but what caught my eye was the presence of medicine at the top of the list. Prior to this period in colonial America, the Scientific Revolution was set into motion after the medieval period, which on some levels lacked innovation. In medicine, there seemed to be a regressing, especially with the presence of the Black Plague. However, scientists in the 1600s and 1700s were ever experimenting to find new solutions to problems, including diseases. Not only were there artificial remedies created, but there were natural remedies used as well, distinguished in the advertisement as “chymical and galenical.” As the Europeans composed the bulk of innovators and inventors, their ideas and products were passed on to their colonies. Although the colonial era continued to have sicknesses, including the Yellow Fever, colonists had a knowledge of medicine that would continue to grow and eventually lessen the effects of epidemics.

The American Colonies were able to benefit from improved Western medicine and they continued to see medicine develop in their time.



I suspect that much of Maia’s analysis of this advertisement was inspired by the two-semester History of Western Civilization sequence taught by my colleagues, Lance Lazar in the fall and Winston Black this spring. I encourage students to look for connections among their courses, especially history courses, rather than treat different places and different eras as if they existed completely independently of each other. It’s certainly gratifying when students take content and ideas from one course and effectively apply them to the periods and places they are studying in other courses.

That being said, this advertisement offers another opportunity to challenge students to think about other perspectives, to continue to integrate new knowledge into their interpretation of the past. While Europeans were certainly influential in the development of Western medicine, this advertisement leaves out the possible contributions of indigenous peoples (just as the advertisement for Jamaican sugar earlier this week belied the labor of enslaved Africans). Consider, for instance, the work of Kathleen S. Murphy (History, California Polytechnic State University), including “Translating the Vernacular: Indigenous and African Knowledge in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic.”[1] Murphy demonstrates that Europeans were often assisted by non-Europeans in their quest for scientific and medical knowledge. In some cases, these so-called “others” acted as teachers to Europeans, instructing them in healing techniques and the qualities of previously unknown flora and fauna in the wake of the Columbian Exchange.

Medical knowledge did make significant advances in the eighteenth century, partly as a result of interactions and cooperation among Europeans, Africans, and indigenous Americans.  In turn, colonists could purchase “A Large Assortment of Medicines, chymical and galenical.”


[1] Kathleen S. Murphy, “Translating the Vernacular: Indigenous and African Knowledge in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic,” Atlantic Studies 8, no. 1 (2011): 29-48.

One thought on “February 4

  1. Thanks, Carl, for preparing a fascinating site and for allowing students to provide their own commentary on these advertisements. As a historian of medicine, and pharmacy in particular, this ad especially interests me. Maia is correct that medicine made some advances during the Scientific Revolution, along with better known astronomy and physics, but we shouldn’t overestimate those advances. Yes, William Harvey and others made important discoveries about the circulation of the blood that challenged Hippocratic-Galenic physiology, but Galen’s teachings on the four humors and medieval European and Arabic theories about the use of drugs to manipulate those humors persisted well into the 19th century in Europe and America. The medical schools of Philadelphia continued to teach Galenic “material medica” (pharmacology) into the 1840s.

    This ad of 1766 shows that purveyors of medicines still valued “galenical” knowledge and assumed their customers would as well. And here, “galenical” probably refers only to the plant-based medicines, which were typical of Mediterranean and Western pharmacy: “Nutmegs, cloves, mace, cinnamon…” Though they sound exotic (or like a Thanksgiving dessert), Arabic and European pharmacists had used these spices as medicines since the 11th century, and every good apothecary would be expected to have them stocked.

    What is new (or at least post-medieval) about this ad is the claim to “chymical” medicines: this term refers most likely only to those listed medicines of a geological or chemical nature: “copperas, allum, brimstone…” It was only in the 16th century that European pharmacists, most famously Paracelsus, pioneered the use of minerals in medicine and laid the foundations for modern chemistry. However, we shouldn’t assume too much modernity by the use of this word “chymical”, since it is essentially the same word as “alchemical” and the two were used interchangeably until the 19th century, when “chemistry” came to be seen as modern, and “alchemy” as outdated.

    On the whole, this list of botanical and minerals medicines seems outdated by 1766, when Europeans and American colonists were turning increasingly to “indigenous and African knowledge”, as Kathleen Murphy demonstrates. Among the most famous products of this new (to Europeans) knowledge was quinine, derived from the Central American cinchona, and used to treat malaria to this day. One of the most important contributions of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, at least as I’ve taught it to Maia, is the construction of an attitude of openness to new ideas and products, and to the possibility that non-European societies (or at least non-Western places) have something to add to the sum of knowledge beyond what Europeans had inherited from Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

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