M. Gijswijt-Hofstra, G. M. Van Heteren and E. M. Tansey, Biographies of Remedies: Drugs, Medicines and Contraceptives in Dutch and Anglo-American Healing Cultures (Clio Medica 66), Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2002. pp i-iv, 295, 21 unno.
This volume originated in an Anglo-Dutch Workshop on ‘Remedies and Healing Cultures in Britain and the Netherlands in the Twentieth Century’, held at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in the summer of 1998. Those who attended and commented on sessions will remember this as a site of lively scholarly interchange. However, one is rather less persuaded, away from the buzz of interaction, that the combination of papers presented here works as a coherent volume, rather than a collection of essays, though most of these are of considerable individual merit. Also, the focus seems to have expanded somewhat to include the nineteenth century and North America, thus losing what might have been a useful comparison of two relatively similar North Western European countries in a delimited time span.
The papers fall into three distinct groups, with a couple of outliers. Virginia Berridge’s opening piece on ‘Changing places: Illicit drugs, medicines, tobacco and nicotine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ makes one wish for perhaps more studies here of the changing image of particular substances and the variations in policing their dissemination and use.
This is followed by a relatively coherent group of three papers on pharmacists and druggists. Frank Huisman’s ‘Pharmacists, druggists and the spirit of Thorbecke: The shaping of the Dutch Pharmacy, 1865-c.1920’ and Rein Vos’s ‘The "Dutch drugstore" as an attempt to reshape pharmaceutical practice: the conflict between ethical and commercial pharmacy in Dutch cultures of medicine’ look at the situation in the Netherlands, while Stuart Anderson considers ‘Community pharmacy in Great Britain: Mediation at the boundary between professional and lay care 1920-1955’. These papers work nicely together addressing similar issues across comparable timespans.
Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra’s ‘Homeopathy and its concern for purity: The Dutch case in the early twentieth century’, though perhaps connected to the above three papers, is something of another outlier. As with Berridge’s essay, this makes one wish that there were further, more cross-culturally comparative, material on the theme, in this case, alternative health systems.
This is followed by a group of four excellent papers specifically on issues to do with contraception, reflecting the current historiographical vibrancy of this topic. Nelly Oudshoorn discusses the differently gendered dynamics of creating female and male hormonal contraceptives in ‘Drugs for healthy people: The culture of testing hormonal contraceptives for women and men’. Kate Fisher, using oral history interviews, explores ‘Contrasting cultures of contraception: Birth control clinics and the working classes in Britain between the wars’. The active involvement of the ‘test subjects’ in the UK during the development of the Pill is illuminated by Lara Marks’s ‘"Public-spirited and enterprising volunteers": The Council for the Investigation of Fertility Control and the British clinical trials of the contraceptive pill, 1959-1973’. Moving back to an earlier chronological period and different spatial site, Willem de Blecourt investigates ‘"Hygienic articles, patent medicines and rubber goods": markets and meanings in early twentieth century Netherlands’.
The final group deals with the high-tech and commercially cut-throat world of later twentieth century ‘wonder drugs’ (actual or potential). Streptomycin, a one-time miracle drug, comes under Alan Yoshioka’s scrutiny in his ‘cultural history’ of this antibiotic. Toine Peters examines the interferon story through the lens of ‘media, audiences and marketing medicines’, while Vivien Walsh and Jordan Goodman provide a ‘historical and theoretical perspective’ on ‘the billion-dollar molecule’, Taxol.
The organising trope of ‘biographies of remedies’, which is analysed more extensively in the Afterword by Godelieve van Heteren: ‘Who cares: Remedies, care and cultures of healing’, works better in some of these instances than in others. It is not entirely clear that this is an altogether functional means whereby a common connecting thread between these rather diverse articles emerging from a variety of disciplinary positions might be elicited. Overall one does rather wish for a selection that might draw out more rigorously specific comparative themes.
Although these papers worked well in the less formal setting of face-to-face exchange, generating much stimulating discussion and provoking subsequent thought, in printed form, the dialogues that occurred in that previous setting between the various themes and approaches, are far from transparent. While the individual papers, and the specific sub-groupings, can be recommended to those interested in the development of pharmacy, or in the cultures of contraception and the questions raised by the necessity for testing hormonal ‘drugs for healthy people’, or in the post-World War II (or, perhaps, more appropriately post-penicillin) era of wonder drugs promising therapeutic miracles, the whole volume is rather too diverse in the topics it covers to generate any very general appeal.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London