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The thirteenth British ‘National Curry Week’ is now upon us, a timely reminder of our long-standing love affair with exotic food. Last year we reflected on the many early recipes for curry to be found in the Wellcome Library’s books and manuscripts. This year, our tribute has a more medicinal flavour. Among the many works on material medica in the library is the four-volume Medical Botany compiled by the physician William Woodville (1752-1805) and published between 1790 and 1794. A keen botanist and horticulturalist (perhaps too keen: he once shot a man who was causing a disturbance in his garden), Woodville assiduously documented all of the plants known to late eighteenth-century medical science.

Under the entry for Curcuma longa – long-rooted turmeric – Woodville describes the now-familiar ‘deep saffron or gold colour’ of the tuber, from which was derived a spice of ‘somewhat fragrant’ odour, ‘moderate’ warmth and ‘bitterish, slightly acrid’ taste. It was commonly employed in the east for seasoning of food and, Woodville added in a footnote, ‘it enters the composition of the Curry powder which is now much used here’. Its culinary value was not, however, matched by its medicinal properties, at least according to Woodville. ‘Though the use of this root is recommended by several practical writers, it is now very rarely employed’, Woodville commented, citing no less an authority than his former teacher, the famous Edinburgh physician and chemist William Cullen (1710-1790).

Woodville’s medical obituary for turmeric may have been premature. Long-established in Ayurvedic medicine, the active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, has recently been the focus of intense scientific interest. A search of current medical literature (from PubMed, via the Wellcome Library catalogue) reveals over 3,600 articles on the subject. Among them are studies exploring curcumin’s potential as an anti-inflammatory, an anti-malarial and – as evidenced by a recent paper by scientists at the Cork Cancer Research Centre – as a possible weapon in the treatment of cancer.

For those seeking salvation through spice there is, alas, a sting in the tail: as yet, there is no clinical case for curry as cure. Perhaps more salient is Woodville’s two hundred year-old warning to those who were partial to the yellow powder: ‘This root has the character of being a powerful aperient’, most efficacious against ‘chronic visceral obstructions’. It wasn’t merely the eyes of Georgian gourmands that were opened by the taste of turmeric…

Image: William Woodville. Stipple engraving by W. Bond, 1806, after L. F. Abbott. (Wellcome Library no. 9774i).

Author: Dr. Simon Chaplin

Simon Chaplin

Simon Chaplin is Director of Culture & Society at the Wellcome Library.

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