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.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

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.”

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[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.