Three Centuries of Drug Ads

In his book Polyanthea Medicinal(Lisbon, 1697), a Portuguese doctor and seller of remedios secretos (“secret remedies”) named João Curvo Semedo listed hundreds of early modern drug recipes. Semedo rather resembled the British drug seller and author William Salmon (who I wrote about in a previous post) in his readiness to experiment with both remedies from the New World and alchemical preparations being developed by acolytes of Paracelsus. The substances listed as medicinal drugs in Polyanthea Medicinal run the gamut from dog feces to powdered pearls, and from ordinary table salt to mysterious stones “found on the beach of Casomdama in the Kingdom of Angola,” which, “after being put in wounds caused by any venomous beast, will draw out the venom.” The unusual range of Semedo’s pharmacy led one nineteenth century Portuguese medical student to remark in his doctoral thesis that he believed the book would “nauseate” any modern reader. Later generations tended to view Semedo as a physician in the “quack doctor” tradition of mountebanks and snake-oil salesman. Interestingly, he actually acknowledged this criticism in his own work, beginning his book with the following “plea to the Readers.” (The below is a rough paraphrase from the rather more Baroque Portuguese original):

In the Parisian Court, and in many other parts of the world, there are those who knowing some singular remedy, affix papers at the most traficked roads, proclaiming to all who live in these areas that they have a panacea useful for all illnesses. These fellows distribute their papers to people they encounter in the street, so that all may know where to go to find such a remedy.   

The ensuing list of what Semedo called “the Remedies that I prepare in my house” included his eponymous preparation “Bezoartico Curviano,” an “Agua Lusitana” (Portuguese water), and a “powder which cures the involuntary flux of semen.”

This was the beginning of a long tradition that wed drug marketing with global capitalism and print culture.

Read more at Res Obscura.

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