Retail therapy: selling and buying drugs in the ancient world

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By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits

Johnson Papyrus, fragment of an illustrated herbal manuscript showing a plant possibly symphytum officinale, comfrey. Fragment of a leaf from an illustrated herbal, found by J de M Johnson in 1904, Egypt, while working for the Egypt Exploration Fund. Wellcome Images L0045047

The third seminar in the 2014-15 History of Pre-Modern Medicine academic seminar series, will take place on Tuesday 11th November.

Speaker: Dr Laurence Totelin (Cardiff University)

‘Retail Therapy: Selling and buying drugs in the ancient world’


Selling and buying drugs, whether simple or compound, in the ancient Greek and Roman world could mean very big business indeed. Recipes for remedies that had been found effective could fetch high prices; pedlars made their fortunes selling miracle cures; merchants devised cunning plans to adulterate ingredients to increase their revenue; and bona fide pharmacologists created means to test the purity of the products they bought or collected. Clearly patients bought more than cures when purchasing some of the most fanciful drugs created in antiquity; they also bought into a certain way of life, and emulated their betters. In this context, is it legitimate to apply to the ancient world concepts taken from modern economics, such as advertising, consumerism, fashion, branding, etc.? In this paper, I will attempt to answer some of these questions by focusing on women as consumers of ancient drugs. We will see that there was no strict division between pharmacology and cosmetology in the ancient world. Medical authors often criticised women for their vanity, yet they included cosmetic recipes in their works. Here, I will study the reasons for this ambivalence, and show that women were significant health consumers.

The seminar will take place in the Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE.  Doors open at 6pm prompt, seminars will start at 6.15pm.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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