For the Greeks, a pharmakon could be both medicine and poison. The German alchemist Paracelsus went even further: “Poison is in everything,” he famously wrote, “and nothing is without poison.” Today, we tend to use different words to differentiate “medicines,” “poisons,” and “drugs” – but as this class will explore, the histories of these three categories have more in common than we might think. Readings for this class will range from the drugs and poisons of the Ancient Greeks to the theories of Paracelsus, the techniques of early modern assassins, the use of poisons as a form of resistance by African slaves, and finally the emergence of the discipline of toxicology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. No prior knowledge of poisons is required, but students should have an interest in premodern history and/or the history of the life sciences.
The core objective of this course is to teach you how to reflect creatively and critically on the human past. The second objective is to provide you with a basic grounding in the history of science, medicine, and globalization, as told through the thematic prism of the changing conception of poison. This is a seminar course, and I expect every student to come to each class prepared to share questions, criticisms, and insights.
There will be two types of assignments over the course of the semester:
1) Once per week, I will ask you to turn in a 500 word reading response engaging with the assigned readings. This must be more than a summary, and it must be in your own words and express your own ideas. I encourage you to question and disagree with the readings (and me) rather than merely restate them. I will grade these reading responses with an eye toward content rather than the prose’s level of polish, so don’t worry too much about grammatical errors or style. The goal is, first, to show that you’ve done the reading, and, second, to show that you’ve engaged with it in a personal way.
2) Two writing assignments. The first will be a prospectus for a research project of around 10-12 pages double spaced plus bibliography; the final paper, which will develop out of the prospectus and incorporate original research, will be 15 to 18 pages.
In-class participation: 15%
Reading responses: 15%
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Scholarship, by its very nature, is an iterative process, with ideas and insights building one upon the other. Collaborative scholarship requires the study of other scholars’ work, the free discussion of such work, and the explicit acknowledgement of those ideas in any work that inform our own. This exchange of ideas relies upon a mutual trust that sources, opinions, facts, and insights will be properly noted and carefully credited.
In practical terms, this means that, as students, you must be responsible for the full citations of others’ ideas in all of your research papers and projects; you must be scrupulously honest when taking your examinations; you must always submit your own work and not that of another student, scholar, or internet agent.
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• Michael A. Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2010)
• Paul Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (Yale UP, 2008) • Deborah Blum, The Poisoner’s Handbook, (2011)
(all other course readings will be scanned and distributed via PDF)
WEEK ONE: INTRODUCTION: THE CONCEPT OF THE PHARMAKON
• Michael A. Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 73-127.
WEEK TWO: POISON IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
• Michael A. Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 149-233. [1st reading response due by Monday before class]
WEEK THREE: MEDIEVAL SPICES, POISONS AND CURES
• Paul Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (Yale UP, 2008), 1- 104. [2nd reading response due by Monday before class]
WEEK FOUR: POISONS IN THE ISLAMIC WORLD, INDIA AND CHINA
• Daniel Carey, “The political economy of poison: the kingdom of Makassar and the early Royal Society”
• Carla Nappi, “Bolatu’s Pharmacy Theriac in Early Modern China,” Early Science and Medicine 14 (6):737-764. [3rd reading response due]
WEEK FIVE: PARACELSUS AND THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
• Royal Society papers saved on Courseworks.
• Frederick Gibbs, “Specific Form and Poisonous Properties: Understanding Poison in the Fifteenth Century”
• Baldwin, Martha. “The Snakestone Experiments: An Early Modern Medical Debate” Isis 86.3 (1995): 394–418. [4th reading response due]
WEEK SIX: POISON AND GENDER
• Colin Imber “Why You Should Poison Your Husband: A Note on Liability in Ḥanafī Law in the Ottoman Period,” Islamic Law and Society Vol. 1, No. 2 (1994).
• Paul Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (Yale UP, 2008), 146- 164. [5th reading response due]
WEEK SEVEN: THE EARLY MODERN GLOBALIZATION OF POISON
• Benjamin Breen, Tropical Transplantations: Drugs, Nature, and Globalization in the Portuguese and British Empires (book manuscript in progress), chapters 2-4.
• Paul Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (Yale UP, 2008), 193- 227.
WEEK EIGHT: SLAVE RESISTANCE AND POISONS IN THE ATLANTIC WORLD
• Thornton, John. “Cannibals, Witches, and Slave Traders in the Atlantic World” William and Mary Quarterly 60: 2 (2003).
• J. Handler, “Slave medicine and Obeah in Barbados, circa 1650 to 1834” in New West Indian Guide/ Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 74 (2000), 50-79.
***Research paper prospectus due at end of class***
WEEK NINE: ORIGINS OF TROPICAL ETHNOBOTANY
• Abena Dove Osseo-Assare, Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2014), PDF excerpts.
• Marcy Norton, “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” [6th reading response due]
WEEK TEN: THE HUNT FOR ALKALOIDS IN THE 19th CENTURY
• Deborah Blum, The Poisoner’s Handbook, 1-75.
• Sir Arthur Can Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (PDF excerpts). [7th reading response due]
WEEK TEN: ORIGINS OF MODERN TOXICOLOGY
• Deborah Blum, The Poisoner’s Handbook, 75-152.
WEEK ELEVEN: POISON IN THE NUCLEAR AGE
• Deborah Blum, The Poisoner’s Handbook, 176-196, 245-275.
• Caroline Jack and Stephanie Steinhardt, “Atomic Anxiety and the Tooth Fairy: Citizen Science in the Midcentury Midwest,” The Appendix, Issue 2.4 (Oct, 2014).
WEEK TWELVE: POISONS AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF MODERNITY
• Haruki Murakami, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (excerpts) WEEK THIRTEEN: CLASS PRESENTATIONS
*** Final Papers Due ***