Organized Session

Thinking with Poison: A Cross-Cultural Conversation

Organizer

Yan Liu

State University of New York Buffalo

Chair

Jeremy Greene

Johns Hopkins University

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Session Abstract

Poison has permeated history. Often associated with danger, harm, and intrigue, poison is a matter that cannot be taken lightly, piquing intense interest among medical thinkers and practitioners from early in history. Why does poison kill? In what way does it alter the body? How to detect and counter it? And what remedial potential does it possess? This panel seeks to address these questions by exploring the many lives of poison around the globe from antiquity to the 20th century. Alain Touwaide traces the roots of toxicology to Greek antiquity, revealing the early effort of studying poisons to fathom therapeutic action among ancient medical writers. Yan Liu examines the central concept of du (potency) in ancient China, which is similar to pharmakon, and spotlights the medical use of poisons in Chinese pharmacy. Alisha Rankin reflects upon the new phenomenon in early modern Europe when many antidotes acquired panacea-like properties, facilitated by the intimate link between poison and disease. Finally, Projit Mukharji explores attempts by parapsychologists in postcolonial India to find a suitably "scientific" basis for the incantatory therapies of snake venom. Altogether, by presenting four stories of poison across the globe, throughout history, the panel attempts to foster a cross-cultural conversation on poison that provokes comparative insights. Poison is a good thing to think with. For it reveals a set of paradoxes that stand saliently in medical culture and beyond: between the curative and the noxious, the material and the immaterial, the exotic and the familiar.

Presenter 1

Toxicology in Antiquity: From the Forensic to the Epistemological

Alain Touwaide

University of California Los Angeles

Abstract

The medical literature of antiquity strangely contains a high number of treatises specialized in venoms and poisons written in different forms, from poetry to encyclopedia, from the 2nd century BC to the 7th century AD and beyond. The recent analysis of the history of toxicology by Frederick Gibbs identifies this body of literature as "Classical Toxicology" and characterizes it as mostly descriptive. A close analysis of the treatises allows for a different interpretation, particularly when this body of literature is positioned in the broader context of the ancient medical literature. It appears that, rather than being descriptive, the treatises are forensic in nature as they provide the ways to identify the toxic agents, although they certainly do this also for therapeutic purposes. Furthermore, it appears that the so-called medical schools that developed during the period spanning 2nd century BC to 2nd century AD devoted much attention to the very notion of venom/poison and offered models to account for their action on the human body in distinct ways according to their differentiated theoretical premises. Analysis of these theories reveals that such research was aimed at understanding the action of substances introduced into/onto the body (including medicines), with the venoms/poisons providing a clear case, much more visible than the therapeutic action. Ancient toxicology thus cannot be reduced to a descriptive discipline, but was multi-faceted, including therapeutics, forensic medicine, and epistemology, in addition to natural sciences, zoology, pathology, and remedial therapy.

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Presenter 2

The Paradox of Du: Poisons and Medicines in Early China

Yan Liu

State University of New York Buffalo

Abstract

One salient feature of classical Chinese medicine, which is surprising to many, was its regular use of poisons. For example, aconite (fuzi), a highly toxic herb, was one of the most frequently prescribed drugs in premodern China. Why did poisons figure prominently in Chinese pharmacy? What made them therapeutically powerful? This paper probes the roots of this medical tradition in early China (from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE), when the major outlines of Chinese pharmacology took shape. It explores the key concept of du, a word for modern readers is regularly understood as poison. Yet in the past, the word carried a paradoxical meaning that straddled the useful and the harmful, the good and the bad, medicine and poison. The paper traces the rise of this particular meaning of du to the Han period (206 BCE-220 CE) and situates it in the prevailing philosophical and political discussion of the dialectical nature of things at the time. In addition, by examining two foundational materia medica texts produced in the first and fifth century respectively, the paper reveals the centrality of the du paradox to the theory and practice of medicine. Finally, the paper compares du with the Greek concept of pharmakon, and identifies both striking similarities and critical differences between classical Chinese and Greek pharmacy. In the end, this paper seeks to not just unveil an important yet ignored facet of Chinese medical history, but also bring fresh insights into the understanding of drug therapy today.

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Presenter 3

Powerful and Artful Substances: Poison and Panaceas in Sixteenth-Century Europe

Alisha Rankin

Tufts University

Abstract

This paper examines the panacea-like properties attributed to poison antidotes in sixteenth-century Europe. While the ancient antidote theriac had long been used as a near cure-all, other poison antidotes, like terra sigillata, bezoar, and unicorn horn, gained new import as remedies for a wide variety of ailments. In the wake of the Black Death, widely viewed as a poisonous disease, physicians increasingly used an occult mechanism called "total substance" to explain the way poison harmed the body in cases of both poisoning and pestilential disease. The connection between poison and disease led to a corresponding expansion in the perceived usefulness of many antidotes. In the sixteenth century, European colonial expansion compounded this trend, as exotic antidotes like bezoar became more attainable and optimism about new wonder drugs skyrocketed. In 1589, physician Johann Wittich boasted of the numerous "powerful and artful substances" circulating in Europe, useful against poison and almost any disease. However, the blurring of antidotes and cure-alls made it difficult for Galenic physicians like Wittich to separate themselves from alchemical healers. Terra sigillata, a traditional Galenic cure for poison and plague, was recast as a perfect alchemical cure for poison and numerous diseases. In 1591, a German alchemist named Georg am Wald turned his poison antidote into a true panacea that could cure hundreds of ailments, with poison and poisonous diseases prominent among them. This paper argues that the blurred boundaries between poison and disease helped spur a drive for panaceas.

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Presenter 4

Poisons, Parapsychology and Postcolonialism: Snake Venom and Psychic Statecraft in Cold War India

Projit Bihari Mukharji

University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

Soon after gaining independence from Britain, several leading politicians in India became interested in radically rethinking the bases, methods and purpose of science. Some of these efforts resulted in the founding of a number of parapsychology departments in Indian universities. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, these departments explored phenomenon that they believed had been ignored by the more "materialist science" of the imperial era. Besides Extra Sensory Perception (ESP), which was the main object of parapsychological investigation in the West, Indian parapsychologists took up a number of topics thought to be peculiarly "non-Western", such as reincarnation, yoga and so forth. One of the prominent areas of such exploration was the use of mantras or incantations in the cure of snake bites. Funded by an American philanthropist, the Indian parapsychologists attempted to design standardized research protocols to test the power of these healing incantations in cases of snake bite. Since thousands died annually of snake bites in India, the problem of snake venom treatment was long seen as a public health challenge. The use of mantras for such treatment, though enjoying a long textual genealogy, by the 20th century was generally seen to be 'superstitious' and 'useless' by the medical establishment. Most mainstream public health practitioners saw the popular belief in mantras to treat snake bites as a problem rather than a resource. The parapsychologists, by contrast, thought that their investigations would demonstrate how psychic powers could be harnessed to meet the practical needs of the newly postcolonial state. The investigations, which continued on and off for nearly a decade, engendered both the promise of 'psychic statecraft' as well as the limits of the postcolonial quest for a new and different science.

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