Harry Potter may have come and gone here at the New-York Historical Society but it turns out that the interplay of magic and science that enlivens the Potter series can still be found in the Historical Society’s collections. On this occasion, it emerges from an unidentified colonial physician’s account book.
Although it’s generally written in legible scripts, the account book’s obscure pharmaceutical terminology and cryptic abbreviations can make interpretation a little challenging initially. Yet patient examination and the power of the internet do wonders, revealing both a fascinating snapshot of its era and a curious link to the evolution of Western thought.
Perhaps most accessible are the names; these include many of New York’s leading families: Vesey, Bayard, Keteltas, Seixas, Delaplaine, and Provoost. For lesser known citizens the book often records a profession, covering everything from rigger to wampum maker.
Then there are those who have neither a noted family name, nor a particular profession: slaves. Treatments for the city’s slaves appear regularly, confirming the institution’s looming presence in colonial New York. Oh, and in case this suggests concern for slaves’ well-being, keep in mind that colonial New Yorkers would have seen these men, women, and children as property. Hence, medical treatments were more often than not an investment in one’s property.
Aside from being a window onto contemporary society, the volume also illustrates the fundamental role of humorism in eighteenth century medicine. An ancient system positing illness as a manifestation of imbalances in the four bodily “humors” (blood, phlegm, bile and black bile), humorism heavily influenced medical assessment and treatment before breakthroughs in our understanding of disease and illness in the nineteenth century.
In this system, treatment aimed to restore balance by reducing excess or deficiency. The procedure we may be most familiar with today is the phlebotomy, or bloodletting, but the account book is rife with all sorts of treatments, such as emetics to induce vomiting, carminatives for flatulence, or a sudorific to initiate sweating.
Things do get a little strange when investigating the esoteric symbols found throughout the volume though. Some are indications of a medicine’s component–for example mercury, sulfur, vitriol, and antimony–while others denote a quantity, e.g., ounces and drams. More intriguing is that both have roots in alchemy, the proto-scientific discipline with various magical associations that grew out of the Middle Ages and thrived in the early modern period. Despite these remnants, there is no suggestion here that the symbols are performing as anything more than an apothecary’s shorthand. They do, however, remind us of modern medicine’s rather mysterious prehistory.
Unfortunately, while he treated and sold medicines to a wide variety of named patients and doctors, even as far away as New Jersey and Long Island, the owner of the account book himself remains a mystery. A complicating factor may be what appear to be multiple hands represented in the volume. In time, this may change with the right amount of investigation. Regardless, the eloquent blending of magic and science that forms much of the genius of J. K. Rowling’s books is evident, as is its reflection of how modern medicine took shape over time.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Manuscript Curator.