Kill or Cure!

One of the defining aspects of the so-called scientific revolution was the massive increase in experimentation as a method to discover or confirm knowledge of the natural world, replacing the empirical observation or experience of Aristotelian scientia. Ignoring the trivial and fatuous, but unfortunately still widespread, claim that Galileo invented experimental science, it is an important area of the history of Early Modern science to trace and analyse how, when and where this methodological change took place. This transition, a very gradual one, actually took place in various areas of knowledge acquisition during the Renaissance and might well be regarded as one of the defining features of Renaissance science, separating it from its medieval predecessor.

One, perhaps surprising, area where this transition took place was in the testing of poisons and their antidotes, as brilliantly researched, described, analysed and reported by Alisha Rankin in her new book, The Poison Trials: Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science.[1]


The starting point  for Rankin’s fascinating story is that it was apparently considered acceptable for a large part of the sixteenth century to test poisons and above all their supposed antidotes on human beings. No, you didn’t misread that last sentence, during the sixteenth century test on poisons and their antidotes were carried out by physicians, with the active support of the ruling establishment, on condemned prisoners, truly shades of Mengele and Auschwitz.

This medical practice of testing didn’t, however, begin in the Renaissance but there are precedence cases throughout history beginning in antiquity and occurring intermittently all the way up to the Renaissance. Testing poisons and their antidotes mostly on animals, although tests on criminals existed as well. Rankin’s opening chapter is a detailed sketch and analysis of poison trials that preceded the Renaissance, as well as a general history of poisons and their antidotes.

Her second chapter then deals in detail with the trial ordered by Pope Clement VII in 1524 of the antidote Oleum Clementis created by the surgeon Gregorio Caravita. Here a new chapter in the history of testing was opened, as this antidote was tested on two condemned prisoners under the supervision of a physician. Both prisoners were given a dose of a known strong poison and one was given a dose of the antidote. The prisoner, who received the antidote survived and the trial and its results were publicised creating a medical sensation.

Rankin explains that there was an obsession with poison and poisoning amongst the rich and powerful during the Renaissance, so the interest in methods of both detecting poisons and combating their effects was very strong amongst those in power, the most likely victims of an attempted poisoning. This also meant that there was an interest amongst physicians, apothecaries, and empirics to find or create such potions, as a route to fame and fortune.


Having set the scene, in the rest of her book Rankin takes us through the sixteenth century through periods of testing on both humans and animals, into the seventeenth and the scientific revolution. Along route she introduces us to newly invented antidotes and their inventors/discoverers but also to an incredible amount of relevant contextual information.

We learn, for example, that poison antidotes were not considered poison specific but worked against all poisons, if they worked at all. We also learn that plagues were not, like other more common ailments, to be caused by an imbalance of the four humours, as taught by Galen, but were a poisoning of the body, so that a poison antidote, should or would function as a cure for plagues as well.

Alongside the purely medical descriptions, we also get the full spectrum of the social, political, cultural, ethical, and economic contexts in which the poison trials took place. A poison trial sanctioned by a head of state and carried out by a learned physician had, naturally, a completely different status to one carried out by an empiric on the town square during a local fair.

(I’m still hunting for a possible translation into modern English of the term empiric. This is, usually, simply translated as quack, and whilst it is true that many empirics were what we would now call quacks, the spectrum of their medical activities was not just confined to conning people. Quite a lot of them did offer genuine medical services, no more and no less effective than those of the university educated physicians.)

Rankin goes into great detail on how the physicians sought to present their trials, so that they were seen to be scholarly as opposed to the snake-oil salesman trials of the empirics. Writing detailed protocols of the progress of the victim’s condition following the administration of the poison dose and the antidote, noting times and nature of vomiting, sweating, diarrhoea etc, giving their trials at least the appearance of a controlled experiment. This is contrasted with the simple public presentations of the empirics.


Also, important, and highly relevant to the historical development of science, Rankin discusses and analyses the use of the terms, ‘experience’, ‘experiment’, and ‘proof’ in the descriptions of poison trials. The transition from Aristotelian experience to empirical experiment being one of the defining characteristics of the scientific revolution.

In the final section of her book Rankin expands her remit to cover the history of the universal cures on offer during the period, both the exotic imported kind as well as the locally discovered/invented ones.

An important element of the whole story that Rankin deals with extensively is how the various vendors of antidotes and universal cures advertised and promoted their wares. Hereby, the question whether reports of successful trials or testimonials from cured patient carried the greater weight is examined. We are of course well into the age of print and there was a flourishing market for books and pamphlets praising one’s own wonder products or damning those of one’s rivals.

Rankin tells a highly comprehensive tale of a fascinating piece of Renaissance medical history. It is thoroughly researched and presented in exhaustive detail. A true academic work, it has extensive endnotes (unfortunately not footnotes), a voluminous bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, and an excellent index. It is also pleasantly illustrated with the, in the meantime ubiquitous, grey scale illustrations. However, despite the academic rigour, Rankin has a light, literary style and her prose is truly a pleasure to read.

I really enjoyed reading this book and I would say that this volume is a must read for anybody involved in the history of Early Modern and/or Renaissance medicine but also more generally for those working on the history of Early Modern and/or Renaissance science, or simply Early Modern and/or Renaissance history. I would also recommend it, without reservations, for any general readers, who like to read well written accounts of interesting episodes in history.

[1] Alisha Rankin, The Poison Trials: Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2021


Filed under Book Reviews, History of medicine

5 responses to “Kill or Cure!

  1. This just gets me wondering, what was oleum clementis, and what was the strong poison was it tested against? And how much did the idea that an antidote should work against all poisons (and even plagues!) foul things up? Like I’d imagine useful antidotes getting thrown out because they didn’t work against specific poisons, or specific antidotes being misused against completely inappropriate poisons, etc…

  2. Jim Harrison

    Condemned prisoners were also used to study the transmission of parasites. Carl Zimmer tells about a doctor in Germany in the early 19th Century who fed tainted meat to men scheduled to be hanged in order to figure out the life cycle of tapeworms. According to Zimmer, the subjects were grateful for the very temporary improvement in their diets.

  3. If anyone wants to read more before ordering the book, the introduction is available online as a pdf. Just Google for “oleum clementis”, which I think is translated as Clement’s oil, after Pope Clement Vii although created by Gregorio Caravita, not Clementis. One point that Thony does not mention is that the condemned criminals who received the antidote and survived had their sentences commuted to rowing in the slave galleys. The one factor missing from our modern clinical trials was that one criminal should have received a placebo oil with neither them nor the doctors
    administering it knowing which was which.

  4. Shapoklyak

    empiric = shaman?

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