Ancient apothecary exhibit spurs a creative ‘spark’ in its student curators

Vintage 19th century apothecary bottles, on display at a Yale exhibit called The Early Modern Pharmacy.
For many rural 19th century Americans, dose size was the only different between human and veterinary medicines, and as such include instructions for both human and animal use. (Photo credit: Kendall Teare)

Eliza Smith was a housewife and best-selling author, whose book, “The Compleat Housewife,” is filled with more than 300 recipes for cordials, roasts, pickling — and how to cure the bite of a mad dog.

Smith’s book, which was published in 1727 and is equal parts medical cures and food recipes, is part of a student exhibit “The Early Modern Pharmacy: Drugs, Recipes, and Apothecaries, 1500-1800.” The exhibit, which is on display through July 5 at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, 333 Cedar Street, was designed by undergraduate students as their midterm exam in Paola Bertucci’s course “Collecting Nature and Art in the Preindustrial World.”

I thought early modern pharmacy would be perfect because on the one hand it is about collecting and on the other hand it has to do with the medical world,” says Bertucci, associate professor of history of medicine and of history. She has taught the course before, but for first time chose curating an exhibit as a midterm exam for this course. She conducted the preliminary work over the 2017-2018 winter break and started “digging into the archive” of the Medical Historical Library to see what kind of material was available for her students to work with.

Bertucci chose to have her students curate an exhibit because of “the amazing treasures that are kept in Yale’s libraries and archives, which students often don’t get to see during their time at Yale”. The assignment allowed them to think about how historical artifacts, rare books and prints can be used to tell stories about the past.  She came up with a list of possible items and asked each student to pick three to research at the library and to focus on for their midterm.

Bertucci evaluated each student’s work based on their written text panels as well as a blog post they were required to write. Students presented their choices to the rest of the class, and received grades based on their individual efforts on the exhibit. Bertucci, with her teaching assistant Sarah Pickman, a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in History of Science and Medicine in the Department of History; Melissa Grafe, the director of the Medical History Library; and Susan Wheeler, curator of prints and drawings, made the final selection based on the items’ state of conservation and the exhibit’s subthemes.

Bertucci is an early modernist who works on the history of science, technology, and medicine between 1500 and 1800. “At that time, European powers established global networks of trade and empire that transformed natural specimens into valuable collectibles. In turn, the commodification of the natural world contributed to the reorganization of the world of learning that is commonly associated to the Scientific Revolution. I thought that it would be interesting to put together a course on the history of museums before the modern museum as a public institution. I wanted to think with the students about the origins of modern scientific practices, such as collecting, cataloguing, classifying, and displaying, with a material culture focus and from this more global perspective.” 

An apothecary bottle that contained aether aceticum, once a cure for flatulence and now a common paint thinner.
This hand painted bottle once contained aether aceticum, a liquid described as having a burning taste that was used as a cure for flatulence. Today, the compound is commonly known as ethyl acetate, an ingredient in nail polish removers and paints. (Photo credit: Kendall Teare)

The descriptive labels the students wrote illustrated the history behind many items that arrived to Europe from America and that are in common — albeit far different — use today, such as tobacco, coffee, and cocoa. These were once considered to be cure-alls. The labels also illuminated the sometimes unorthodox uses for different medicines — such as aether aceticum, a substance described as having a burning taste that was touted in the 17th century as a cure for flatulence. Today, the compound is commonly used in nail polish remover and paints.

The exhibit also examines the apothecary as a target of satire. “Apothecaries made a profit from selling medicines that sometimes did not work, and because of this their moral integrity was called into question,” says Bertucci. In one of the prints on display, a Swiss doctor claims that he had the “unique genius” of being able to diagnose any illness merely by inspecting a patient’s urine.

Also included in the exhibit is a mortar and pestle engraved with religious symbols, which was a metaphor of pharmacy as an act of devotion to god and the public good. “The religious understanding of pharmacy was widespread in the early modern period,” says Bertucci, “the fact that healing ingredients could be found in the natural world was regarded as evidence of a benevolent god. In the Christian context, the manual work that was necessary for making medicines was considered redemptive of original sin.”

The origins of many of these “medicinal treatments” that made up early modern pharmacies, says Bertucci, can be traced to Africa, America, and the Middle East. The reason for this is that Europeans were very interested in ingredients and cures that came from these parts of the world. “There were healing traditions located in these countries that were grounded in the natural world. Peoples in these countries used natural ingredients that seemed to be effective but were unknown in Europe.”

Most of these students had no experience working with material culture as a historical source, so it was a great challenge for their ways of thinking,” says Sarah Pickman, a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in History of Science and Medicine and in the Department of History, who was the teaching assistant for the course. “They had to navigate the practical concerns of curating an exhibit: How do you convey what you want to your audience when you only have one label that can fit, at most, 100 words? How do you connect more than 35 objects to a larger theme? What if a visitor doesn’t read all the labels, will they still learn something new?

I was very impressed with the students’ labels. They really did a fantastic job,” says Pickman, who adds that watching the students develop their own critical angle on museums and exhibits while working on this midterm — as well as throughout the whole class — was a particularly gratifying experience for her.

At the beginning of the semester, Pickman asked the students to reflect on their experiences going to museums as visitors. Over the course of the semester, she says, “I could tell that they were not only starting to re-think their answers to these questions based on the history they’d learned, but they were forming their own strong opinions about contemporary museums based on the history we’d talked about in class. It is very rewarding to know that the students were able to connect historical material to contemporary issues, and that they will carry these new perspectives with them as they visit museums in the future.”

A mortar and pestle engraved with religious symbols.
The mortar and pestle was a symbol of the act of devotion to god and the public good. (Photo credit: Kendall Teare)

Studying the history of science and medicine, explains Bertucci, offers critical tools for students to be more informed citizens when it comes to policy making, science, technology, and medicine. “We look at the past to understand the present and think about future practices. We hope that historical awareness will help students to be better scientists if they will be scientists or to be more informed citizens if they choose other careers. We interact with science, technology, and medicine constantly. It is important to be able to understand these disciplines as human activities, and as the result of historical trajectories that, for better or worse, could have been, and can still be, different.”

Bertucci says that the most fulfilling thing about both watching her students curate the exhibit — and teaching in general — is “seeing the students discover that the past is not just old and wrong. When they realize that naturalists from centuries ago were sophisticated thinkers with intellectual skills and practical expertise that are quite difficult to recreate today, I see that spark of surprise and curiosity that animates my own work. But it’s more than that. I feel most satisfied when I see that students realize that the early modern period is critically important for understanding our present and for imagining a better future. ”

Working on an exhibition project is a great alternative to a traditional midterm because it exposes students to different ways of thinking about historical sources,” says Pickman, “and specifically how to use objects and images, not just texts, to understand the past. With this midterm, the students got to tell stories about the past but learned to use a completely different set of sources to do that.”

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Bess Connolly Martell: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324