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Botanicals and Medications

With advances in alkaloid chemistry, pharmacology—the study of drugs and their effects—developed into a precise, prestigious science over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Some medicines featured below were extracted from the natural world (like morphine, derived from the poppy plant), while others (like iodine) had to be synthesized in laboratories. Some substances that were once used medicinally are now known to be non-beneficial or actively deleterious; mercury was applied topically in the 19th century to treat syphilis and dermatological conditions.1 Located in the Garden of the Apothecaries, the École de Pharmacie de Paris grew from a deep-rooted, centuries-long history of pharmaceutical research, production, and dispensation. Our collection contains some theses from the Faculté de Pharmacie, but most of the images you see below are from theses published by the Faculté de Médecine. The relationship between the two schools was close, (albeit sometimes antagonistic) in the 19th century, and there was significant overlap in areas of study.2

Parisian anatomist François Magendie wrote a popular pharmacological formulary and performed experimental studies on plant-based emetics and poisons.3 In fact, toxic substances seem to have been a common area of study in this period. Magendie's student, Claude Bernard, studied the anatomical effects of carbon monoxide and the poison curare,4 and Louis Couty made a career of studying toxic plants, snake venom, and caffeine in 19th-century Rio de Janeiro.5 Even Albert Calmette, one half of the team responsible for the BCG vaccine against tuberculosis, published an extensive study on snake venom in 1896.6 On the less prestigious side of history, Paris-trained doctor Edme Castaing made history in 1832 as the first person to commit murder (or, at least, the first person not to get away with it) using the newly-discovered drug morphine, which he had obtained from a local pharmacy under the pretense of needing it for an experiment.7


  1. Swiderski, Quicksilver, 7.
  2. White, "Pharmaceutical," 864; Kremers et al., History of Pharmacy, 70-73; Warolin, "La création de l'École de pharmacie," 455-59.
  3. Holmstedt and Liljestrand, Readings in Pharmacology, 63-68.
  4. Holmstedt and Liljestrand, Readings, 70.
  5. Velloso and Verela, "Laboratório de Fisiologia Experimental."
  6. Leake, An Historical Account of Pharmacology, 146.
  7. Brook et al, "Chemical History of Morphine," 51; Parry, "First Case," 122-125; Irving, Book of Remarkable Criminals, 169, 179.)
  8. Siegel and Hirschman, "Moreno and the First Study on Cocaine," 219.

Bibliography & Further Reading

    • Brook, Karolina; Jessica Bennet; and Sukumar P. Desai. "The Chemical History of Morphine: An 8000-year Journey, from Resin to de-novo Synthesis." Journal of Anesthesia History 3, no.2 (April 2017): 50-55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janh.2017.02.001.
    • Holmstedt, B. and G. Liljestrand. Readings in Pharmacology. New York: Macmillan, 1963.
    • Irving, H.B. A Book of Remarkable Criminals. London; New York: Cassell, 1819.
    • Kremers, Edward and Glenn Sonnedecker. Kremers and Urdang's History of Pharmacy. 4th Edition. Madison, WI: American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, 1986.
    • Leake, C.D. An Historical Account of Pharmacology to the Twentieth Century. Charles C. Thomas: Springfield, IL, 1975.
    • Parry, Leonard A. "The First Case of Murder by Morphia." Some Famous Medical Trials. Washington, D.C.: Beard Books, 2000: 122-131.
    • Siegel, Ronald K. and Ada Hirschman. "Moreno and the First Study on Cocaine: A Historical Note and Translation." Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 15.3 (1983): 219-220. DOI: 10.1080/02791072.1983.10471951.
    • Swiderski, Richard M. Quicksilver: A History of the Use, Lore and Effects of Mercury. McFarland & Company: 2008.
    • Velloso, Verônica Pimenta and Alex Varela. "Laboratório de Fisiologia Experimental." Dicionário Histórico-Biográfico das Ciências da Saúde no Brasil (1832-1930). Casa de Oswaldo Cruz / Fiocruz. [ Article in Portuguese]
    • Warolin, Christian. "La création de l'École de pharmacie de Paris en 1803." Revue d'histoire de la pharmacie 51, no.339 (2003): 453-474. [Article in French]
    • White, F. Ashford. "Pharmaceutical Education and Colleges in France." The Pharmaceutical Era, Vol. 16. New York: D.O. Haynes & Company, 1896. Google Books. Digitized October 28, 2009.