Images courtesy of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society
British Society for the History of Pharmacy

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Our events programme covers a wide range of pharmacy history topics.  We hold 3 evening meetings each year, and annual conference, a summer visit, and a joint meeting with a School of Pharmacy.  Click on an event below to find out more.
Online via Zoom and YouTube
Monday 25 April 202218:30

A Walnut looks like a brain, and therefore could cure brain diseases — today, a traditional medicinal idea called ‘the doctrine of signatures’ is widely cited in contemporary pharmacy and herbalism. It holds that many minerals, plants and animals have ‘signatures’, i.e. visible resemblance to human organs, bodily fluids or disease symptoms, and that these signatures indicate the curative effects of natural things. Throughout the centuries, the doctrine of signatures has been veiled by layers of constructions: some argue that it originated from sixteenth-century Swiss physician Paracelsus, some trace it back to antiquity, and some see it as a worldwide universal practice of primitive analogical thinking. Unsurprisingly, the theory of signatures is often taken as an emblem of the superstitious, magical premodern era, in opposition to any scientific worldviews.

This lecture will offer a historical overview of the theories and practices of signatures in early modern European medicine, from its earliest theorisation in sixteenth-century German-speaking countries to its transformation and popularisation in seventeenth-century England. By contextualising signatures in medical recipes and chymical operations, this lecture argues that the signature was actually a highly empirical idea developed through tested remedies and widely-used cures. Despite its mystical theorisation, the doctrine of signatures did not work as an a priori principle in early modern medicine, but as a selection mechanism for useful, memorisable recipes across various schools and traditions of medicine. Rather than simply making visual associations, many proponents of the signature theory explained the appearance, smell and taste of natural things with their chymical components, and promoted physiological investigations of medicinal plants. This lecture may challenge our conventional image of the doctrine of signatures: ideas that we usually consider as remote and superstitious were actually recent and rationalised.

Xinyi Wen is a PhD candidate at Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. She is currently working on research project ‘The Doctrine of Signatures in Early Modern Medical Practice (Wellcome Trust 221115/Z/20/Z)’. Her project approaches questions concerning Renaissance analogical worldview and early modern magic-science transition from the perspective of medical practice, and pays particular attention to the temporalities behind our conventional image of ‘the doctrine of signatures’ today. Her research interest covers multiple disciplines of early modern knowledge, including medicine, chymistry, natural history and philosophy. In addition to the early modern era, she also studies twentieth-century intellectual history, particularly in the circle of art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929), and has a broad interest in anthropology, media theories and contemporary philosophy. She holds a BPhil in philosophy and classical studies from Peking University, and an MPhil in history of science and medicine from University of Cambridge.

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