The Early-Modern Formulary

Two early-modern
encyclopedia articles describing
the 17th-century formulary

[ 1 ]

Opening quotation markOFFICINAL, in Pharmacy, a Term apply’d to such Medicines, whether Simple or Compound, as the College of Physicians requires to be constantly kept in the Apoethcarys Shops, ready to be made up in extemporaneous Prescription. See PRESCRIPTION.

 The officinal Simples are appointed, among us, by the College of Physicians; and the manner of making the Compositions directed in their Dispensatory. See DISPENSATORY, COMPOSITION, &c.

 The Word is form’d of the Latin Officina, Shop.Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  Cyclopædia, or, an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. By Ephraim Chambers. 2 vols. London: Printed for J. and J. Knapton, et al., 1728. 2.658, s.v. Officinal.

[ 2 ]

Opening quotation markDISPENSARY, or, as some write it, DISPENSATORY, a Name given to divers Collections of compound Medicines, wherein are specified the Ingredients, Proportions, and the chief Circumstances of the Preparation and Mixture; the same with what we otherwise call a Pharmacopoeia, or Antidotary.

 Such are the Dispensaries of Mesue, Cordus, the College of Physicians at London, Quincy, &c.

 The Apothecaries, in and about London, are oblig’d to make up their compound Medicines according to the Formules prescrib’d in the College Dispensary; and are enjoyn’d to keep always ready in their Shops all the Medicines there enumerated.

 DISPENSARY, is likewise used for a Magazin, or Office of Medicines kept ready to be dispensed at the prime Cost of the Ingredients, for the Benefit of the sick Poor.

 Of which Kind we have two or three in London maintain’d by the College of Physicians. One at the College it self, first begun in the Year 1696; another in St. Peter’s Alley, Cornhill; and a third in St. Martin’s Lane: where the best Medicines are sold for their intrinsic Value, and Patients are advised every Day, but Sunday, at one of the three Places. See COLLEGE.Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  Cyclopædia, or, an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. By Ephraim Chambers. 2 vols. London: Printed for J. and J. Knapton, et al., 1728. 1.255, s.v. Dispensary.

The text of the formulary

In keeping with the College of Physicians’ institutional prestige and royal charter, the editio princeps of its dispensatory (London, 1618) was finely printed and prefixed with an engraved title-page, featuring a compartment of a crowned arch with lamp. Side pillars twined with grapes complete the border, with heraldic symbols above (a lion and unicorn) and below (on the pillars’ bases, a crowned portcullis and harp).

facsimile of early-17th-century title-page

^ The title-plate for the first edition of the College of Physicians’ dispensatory, published at London in 1618.

The engraved title-page reads in full: Pharmacopœa Londinensis, in qua medicamenta antiqua et nova usitatissima, sedulò collecta, accuratissimè examinata, quotidiana experientia confirmata describuntur. Opera Medicorum Collegii Londinensis. Ex serenissimi Regis mandato cum R. M. Privilegio. Londini: Excudebat Edwardus Griffin, sumptibus Johannis Marriot, ad insigne iridis albæ in platea vulgò dicta Fleet-street, 1618.

Because it was intended for an international scholarly audience, the College’s Pharmacopoeia was written in Latin. And because so many medical practitioners could not read Latin, a Latin Pharmacopoeia ensured that the College of Physicians maintained its monopoly on medical science.

The first English translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis was completed during the Interregnum by the radical physician and astrologer, Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654), who practiced medicine from his home in Spitalfields, and “committed himself wholeheartedly to the service of the sick among the poor, powerless, and uneducated.” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Nicholas Culpeper, by Patrick Curry, 2004, n. pag.)

Culpeper was well-positioned to take advantage of the collapse of censorship after the fall of the Stuarts, becoming a prolific and enormously popular author and translator of medical texts. “It would be hard to overstate Culpeper’s importance for the medical practice and health education (in the widest sense) of his time and place — far greater, according to one authority, than either William Harvey’s or Thomas Sydenham’s ... He not only brought a relatively sophisticated and cheap traditional system of remedies — of the kind sometimes now described as ‘holistic’, with the emphasis on prevention and the gentle treatment of chronic functional disorders — within the reach of the semi-literate majority of the population; he also put the orthodox medicine of his day, alongside the latest thinking (such as Paracelsian ‘chymical or spagirical’ medicine), into the realm of public discourse.” (Curry, 2004, n. pag.)

Because it was intended for a popular audience, Culpeper’s A Physicall Directory, or, a Translation of the London Dispensatory (1649) was a less lavish, hence more affordable, publication than the Latin original. And Culpeper added even more value to his translation by supplying “definitions of terms ... information on what the recipes were to be used for, and ... instructions on how to make the medicines where the Pharmacopoeia’s own were too short or unclear. These additions were meant to break the monopoly held by the apothecaries as well as that of the physicians.” (Curry, 2004, n. pag.)

A frontispiece portrait of the author (“In Effigiem Nicholai Culpeper Equitis”) was prefixed to Culpeper’s English edition of Pharmacopoeia Londinensis. The plate was engraved by Thomas Cross, and captioned: “The shaddow of that Body heer you find / Which serves but as a case to hold his mind. / His Intellectuall part be pleas’d to looke / In lively lines described in the Booke.

mid-17th-century portrait engraving

^ Portrait of Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654), engraved by Thomas Cross (fl. 1644–1682), and prefixed to Culpeper’s A Physicall Directory, or, a Translation of the London Dispensatory (1649).

Culpeper is shown half-length, wearing a plain collar and cloak, with his family arms at top left.
   “The Culpeper family was an eminent one. One branch owned Leeds Castle in Kent; and Wakehurst Place in Sussex was the seat of Nicholas’s father’s family. Sir John Colepeper (created Baron Colepeper in 1644) was a royalist who accompanied the future Charles II into exile in France, and returned with him in 1660.” (Curry, ODNB entry for Nicholas Culpeper, 2004, n. pag.)

This signature image, which spoke volumes about Culpeper’s medical identity, was juxtaposed with a simple letterpress title-page.

facsimile of mid-17th-century title-page

^ The title-page for Culpeper’s first English edition of Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, published at London in 1649.

The letterpress title-page reads in full (minus the Latin quotes from Perseus and Cicero): A physicall directory or A translation of the London dispensatory made by the Colledge of Physicians in London. Being that book by which all apothicaries are strictly commanded to make all their physick with many hundred additions which the reader may find in every page marked with this letter A. Also there is added the use of all the simples beginning at the first page and ending at the 78 page. By Nich. Culpeper gent[leman]. London: Printed for Peter Cole and are to be sold at his shop at the sign of the Printing-presse near to the Royall Exchange, 1649.

Of note, The London Dispensatory’s recipe for “Syrup of Fumitory the Compound” (from the medicinal counsels of Jean Fernel, 1497–1558, chief physician to the king of France) was one of two treatments recommended for cancers held to arise from an excess of melancholy — one of the four humors making up an individual’s temperament, according to classical Greek and Arabic medical theory. Melancholy was so “sad” and “sullen” a humor, according to Culpeper, that “you had as good vex a nest of wasps as vex it” (A Physicall Directory, or, a Translation of the London Dispensatory, 1649, 107 marginalia). As such, Culpeper advises that Fernelius’s Syrup of Fumitory “is the better to be liked because of its gentleness, for in my experience, I could never find a violent medicine do good, but ever harm in a melancholly disease.” (Culpeper, A Physicall Directory, 1649, 107)

The other officinal composition used to treat cancer was “Oyntment of Red Lead” (also known as Unguentume de nimio sive rebrum Camphora, Unguentum de Minio, and Rubrum Camphoratum), which called for “a pound and an ounce” of “oyl of Roses” in its list of 7 ingredients (rose waters, vinegars, and oils were used in many early-modern medicines). Unfortunately, in Culpeper’s clinical experience the ointment was ineffective at treating cancer, as he pointed out in his annotations:

This ointment is as drying as a man shall usually reade of one, and withal cooling, therefore good for sores, and such as are troubled with defluxions: I remember once Dr. Alexander Read applied it to my Mothers breast when she had a Cancer, before it brake [a] long time, but to as much purpose as though he had applied a rotten apple; yet in the forgoing infirmities [i.e., sores and defluxions, referring to the flow or discharge accompanying a cold or inflammation] I beleeve it seldom fails.

(N. Culpeper, A Physicall Directory, 1st edn., 1649, 276)

Culpeper’s A Physicall Directory, or, a Translation of the London Dispensatory (1649, 1650, 1651) was updated and reissued many times thereafter, with the new title Pharmacopœia Londinensis: or The London Dispensatory Further Adorned by the Studies and Collections of the Fellows, Now Living ... (1st rev. edn., 1653, with at least 11 more printings during the 17th century).

Intended by publisher Peter Cole (d. 1665) as part of a series he called The Rationall Physitian’s Library, The London Dispensatory and other Culpeper titles were advertised as “of excellent Use for all Rational Persons; especially for all Chyrurgions at Sea in his most Royal Majesties Ships: and all others that are on Trading Voyages, for the Advancement of the Wealth and Honor of His Kingdoms.” As a consequence, Culpeper’s popular medical works were disseminated far and wide by globe-trotting British merchants, colonists, military men, sailors, and travellers.

Culpeper’s London Dispensatory and his magnum opusThe English Physitian, or, an Astrologo-Physical Discourse on the Vulgar Herbs of this Nation, Being a Compleat Method of Physick, whereby a Man May Preserve his Body in Health, or Cure Himself, being Sick ... (1st edn., 1652, with over 100 subsequent editions, including 15 before 1700) — have the distinction of being the first medical books published in North America. (Thomas Thacher’s broadside, A Brief Rule to Guide the Common-People of New-England How to Order Themselves and Theirs in the Small Pocks, or Measels, printed at Boston in 1677, was the first and only medical publication of the American colonies during the 17th century. It was reissued at Boston as an 8-page pamphlet in 1702 and 1721/2.)

Culpeper’s The English Physitian was printed at Boston, Massachusetts in 1708 and his Dispensatory, over a decade later, in 1720.

facsimile of early-18th-century title-page

^ The title-page for the first American printing of Culpeper’s revised English edition of Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, published at Boston in 1720.

The American edition of Pharmacopoeia Londinensis has the following title and imprint: Pharmacopoeia Londinensis; or, The London dispensatory further adorned by the studies and collections of the fellows now living, of the said college. In this impression you may find, 1. Three hundred useful additions. 2. All the notes that were in the margent are brought into the book between two such crotchets as these [ ]. 3. The virtues, qualities, and properties of every simple. 4. The virtues and use of the compounds. 5. Cautions in giving all medicines that are dangerous. 6. All the medicines that were in the old Latin dispensatory, and are left out in the new Latin one, are printed in this impression in English, with their virtues. 7. A key to Galen and Hippocrates, their method of physick, containing thirty three chapters. 8. In this impression, the Latin name of every one of the compounds is printed, and in what page of the new folio Latin book they are to be found. By Nicholas Culpepper, gent[leman] student in physick and astrology. Boston: Printed by John Allen, for Nicholas Booone [sic], at the sign of the Bible in Cornhill; Daniel Henchman over-against the Brick Meeting-House; and John Edwards, at the sign of the Light-House, 1720.

Culpeper’s revised Pharmacopoeia Londinensis; or, The London Dispensatory Further Adorned by the Studies and Collections of the Fellows Now Living, of the Said College ... (Boston, 1720) was thus the first formulary printed in the British colonies later known as the United States of America.