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Research Seminar: Alisha Rankin

February 27, 2019 @ 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm

Alisha Rankin is Associate Professor of History at Tufts University. Her broad research interests include early modern European history (c. 1450-1700), the history of science and medicine, the history of pharmacy, and women’s history. Her first book, Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany (University of Chicago Press, 2013) examined German princesses who became widely known and admired for their medical knowledge in the sixteenth century — and particularly for making medicinal cures. It won the 2014 Gerald Strauss Prize for Reformation History. She also co-edited (with Elaine Leong) a collection of essays titled Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800 (Ashgate Press, 2011). Her current book project, tentatively titled The Poison Trials: Testing Wonder Drugs in Early Modern Europe, looks at the important role poison antidote tests played in attempts to evaluate early modern cures.

The Paper to be Discussed:
“Poison Trials as Learned Experiments in Sixteenth-Century Europe”

A pre-circulated paper will be available in early February.  For access to the paper, please contact Mark Solovey mark.solovey@utoronto.ca.

This book chapter examines physicians’ testing of poison antidotes by giving poison to animals or condemned criminals, a practice that I call a poison trial. In the 1560s-1580s, over a dozen such poison trials took place at the courts of early modern Europe. As a number of new, supposedly effective antidotes to poison began to enter into the medical marketplace, physicians and their powerful patrons became interested in testing their efficacy. One of the most influential instigators of these tests was the influential Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli, who had observed a poison trial at the court of Pope Clement VII as a young man and oversaw several tests on condemned criminals in his position as physician to the imperial court in Prague. Physicians were not, however, the only individuals conducting tests using poison on living beings. Sixteenth-century Europeans already were familiar with the marketplace shows of empirical practitioners (known as charlatans, mountebanks, or theriac peddlers), who sold their nostrums by conducting dramatic tests using poison on animals – or sometimes themselves. Mattioli and his fellow physicians thus needed to separate their efforts from those of the empirics. To do so, they employed several tactics, including direct contrast between their poison trials and empirics’ tests; invoking a learned tradition of poison trials dating back to the Greeks; and several strategies of medical writing and communication. Physicians thus deliberately constructed a new sort of learnedpoison trial, thereby moving the experiment, once a lowly form of knowledge acquisition, into the domain of learned physicians.

Lunch, coffee, and tea will be provided.


February 27, 2019
12:00 pm - 2:00 pm
Event Category:


IHPST Common Room
VC 303, Victoria College