Making and taking theriac: An experimental and sensory approach to the history of medicine

Nils-Otto Ahnfelt, Hjalmar Fors, Karin Wendin

Forskningsoutput: TidskriftsbidragArtikelPeer review

52 Nedladdningar (Pure)


This paper explores historically used medicaments by making them, or rather reworking them, in a modern laboratory and assessing them for taste, flavour and odour using sensory analysis and a trained panel of sensory assessors. Our test subject is the famous panacea theriac andromachalis, which is subjected to the methods of experimental history of science to create experimental data. We emphasize the importance of the sensory experience, in both the making and the taking of theriac. From antiquity and well into the nineteenth century, medical practitioners and patients held that the sensory qualities of medicaments were of significance. But sensory information is notoriously difficult to transmit textually, and today we know very little about the sensory characteristics of theriac, and other medicines of the past. This is a problematic lacuna in our knowledge of how actors perceived and used them. By choosing the reworking and sensory framework, we can approach early modern pharmacy both as a craft and as a creative process. Thus our study emphasizes the artisanal, or craft, aspect of medicine making. It indicates how the art of medicine making was integrated with and connected to a medical practice which relied heavily on direct sensory assessments of medicaments, disease and patients. Our purpose is, however, not to try to find out how historical medicine makers and patients ‘really felt’ when they experienced the act of smelling and tasting medicines. Our aim is rather to discuss what the sensory experience of making and tasting adds to the investigation of textual sources. Thus, by attempting to access information about the experience of medicine through experimental means, we aim to enrich and complement historical understanding of the medicines and medical theories of the past.
Sidor (från-till)1-24
Antal sidor24
TidskriftBritish Journal for the History of Science
StatusPublicerad - 2022-okt.-17

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  • Livsmedelsvetenskap (40103)
  • Medicinska och farmaceutiska grundvetenskaper (301)


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