Researching medicine in recipe books

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By | Early Medicine, The Researcher’s View

Researcher Katherine Allen is using recipe manuscripts to study domestic medicine in the 18th century.

I first came upon the topic of recipe books as sources for the history of medicine during my master’s degree at the University of Saskatchewan. My thesis was a case study of one Wellcome Library manuscript by Elizabeth Jenner (MS. 3029), examining domestic medicine and distillation. Despite not being able to access original manuscripts, I was able to explore the seventeenth and eighteenth-century recipe books via a microfilm collection in Canada. This resource was incredibly valuable for researchers not able to make the trek to London.

Rebecca Tallamy’s book of Receipts, 1651 Wellcome Images L0051507

I now research manuscript recipe books and domestic medicine in eighteenth-century England. Recipe collecting was a long-standing tradition that continued in elite households in the eighteenth century, despite increased availability of purchasable medical care. Building on current research concerning the commercialisation of medicine and the household’s role in medical care, my thesis addresses why such households continued collecting medical recipes, whilst evolving with shifts in medical practices. To do this, I explore the social, material, and cultural histories of these fascinating domestic records.

Though I have become accustomed to the unusual ingredients with which eighteenth-century individuals chose to self-medicate, occasionally instructions and ingredients still surprise me. For instance, a recipe for consumption water has peculiar instructions, stating to take an old cock [rooster] and “beat him to death a little red as you would a child” [Hampshire Central Records Office, 9M73-G12, f. 14.]. Another ingredient, used for curing scurvy, is the afterbirth of a child. Even the compiler acknowledged the strangeness of this remedy, declaring “I know an instance of this remedy succeeding, ridiculous as it may seem” [Wellcome Library MS. 2363, f. 37r.].

One reason recipe collecting continued is that recipes served a practical role in treatment, but also developed with changing ideologies regarding health and consumer habits. Moreover, as recipe books belong to the wider record of eighteenth-century thought, elite culture influenced the continuation of this writing practice as a respectable social norm.

A fascinating shift in recipe collecting is the increasing occurrence of newsprint pasted into recipe books, and copied out newspaper articles. This development shows that these domestic records continued to evolve alongside broader social and cultural trends in consumerism and knowledge transmission. I have also looked at the close relationship between newsprint and manuscripts as sources of medical information in recipe books.


My research includes approximately 200 manuscript recipe books housed at archives throughout England, including the Wellcome Library, county record offices, and several universities’ special collections. A large component of my thesis is the construction of a database containing over 5,000 recipes. This database allows me to use a representative sample of recipes to determine the most prolific aliments, ingredients, and popular recipes. I also compile information on authorship and kin/friend networks for sharing medical knowledge.

The recent digitisation of the seventeenth-century manuscripts by the Wellcome Library has proven an appreciated and highly used resource. However, eighteenth-century historians are waiting with anticipation for the eighteenth-century recipe books to be digitised as well. Thus, the majority of the manuscripts referenced in my thesis I consulted in person at the Wellcome Library, made possible by research grants from The Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, and the Royal Historical Society.

You can explore the digitised 17th century manuscripts in the Wellcome Library catalogue.

Author: Katherine Allen is in the final year of her DPhil at the University of Oxford. You can find out more about her research at

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