Nicholas Culpeper on Sassafras

The Pharmacopoeia’s Monopoly on Knowledge

In 1618, the Royal College of Physicians of London published one of their grand works, the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis. The book’s authority was bolstered by James I’s royal proclamation making its contents the official list of all known medical drugs and directions for their use in London, and by extension, all of England. Once printed, no apothecary or doctor was allowed to make or dispense medicine in a way that violated the directions presented in the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis. The book was written in Latin and took roughly 33 years to create. It went through nine editions between 1618 and 1718. The Royal College of Physicians maintained their monopoly on medicinal knowledge for 31 years until Nicholas Culpeper came along.

Breaking the Monopoly

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) published his translation of the the Pharmacopoeia Loninensis in 1649 under the title A physicall directory, or, A translation of the London dispensatory made by the Colledge of Physicians in London. In addition to translating the erudite Latin text into English, Culpeper included other descriptions and preparations that were not in the original Pharmacopoeia. Now, the “official” knowledge guarded by the Royal College of Physicians was available to the common person. Culpeper had single handedly broken the monopoly on medicinal knowledge held by the Royal College of Physicians.

Culpeper on Sassafras

Culpeper’s work included hundreds of entries on drugs, including sassafras. See my earlier posts about sassafras for more info and a glimpse into my unhealthy interest on the tree (Indian uses of Sassafras, How were the English Introduced to Sassafras, and Monardes and Gerard on Sassafras). In his chapter on “Woods and their Chips or Raspings,” Culpeper reported the many uses and benefits of sassafras including:

“It is hot and dry in the second degre, it opens obstructions or stoppings, it strenghtens the breast exceedingly, if it be weakened through cold, it breaks the stone, staies vomiting, provokes Urin, and is very profitable in the French-Pocks.”

Nicholas Culpeper, A physicall directory, or a translation of the London dispensatory made by the Colledge of Physicians (London: Peter Cole, 1720), 12.

Explanation of Use

Hot and dry in the second degree: sassafras treated diseases that made people cold and wet according to the prevailing medical knowledge of the day which was based on Galen’s notions of the four humours. For a description of how sassafras fit into early-modern medicine where “cold” diseases were treated with “hot” medicines, see the post about Sassafras and Natural Philosophy.

Opens obstructions or stoppings: cured constipation as a laxative.

Strengthens the breast exceedingly, if it be weakened through cold: strengthened the lungs if weakened by a “cold” illness.

Breaks the stone: cured kidney stones

Stais vomiting: antiemetic drug

Provokes Urin: a diuretic that caused increased urination

Profitable in the French-Pocks: useful in curing syphilis. For more posts about syphilis see how syphilis got its name and how guaiacum was used to treat syphilis.

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