The Poison Trials: Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science
Alisha Rankin (Tufts University)
In 1524, Pope Clement VII gave two condemned criminals to one of his physicians to test a promising new antidote. After each convict ate a marzipan cake poisoned with deadly aconite, one of them received the antidote, and lived—the other died in agony. This event, described in detail by both testers and witnesses, was the first of dozens of poison trials that took place at European princely courts, conducted by learned physicians or royal surgeons on the command of powerful monarchs. At a time when poison was widely feared, the urgent need for effective cures provoked intense excitement about new drugs. As doctors created, performed, and evaluated poison trials, they devoted careful attention to method, wrote detailed experimental reports, and engaged with the problem of using human subjects for fatal tests. They did so in explicit contrast to lower-class healers such as charlatans, who conducted marketplace tests using poison. The Poison Trials probes the various ways that the contrived trial was – and was not – useful to learned medicine in the sixteenth century. It explores questions of efficacy, testimony, and proof; demonstrates the centrality of lower-class empirics to the development of early modern experimental thinking; and engages with early notions of medical ethics and the use of humans for dangerous tests.
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