Two Early-18th-Century Encyclopedia Articles Describing the 17th-Century Formulary
“ OFFICINAL, 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. ”
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. ii. 658, s.v. Officinal.
“ DISPENSARY, 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. ”
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. i. 255, s.v. Dispensary.
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).
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.”
This signature image, which spoke volumes about Culpeper’s medical identity, was juxtaposed with a simple letterpress title-page.
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 opus — The 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.
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.