By Harriet Ritvo ~
Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.
This is a rare book in several senses. Not only are surviving copies scarce but there is nothing much like it. Although a search of any serious library will reveal dozens—even hundreds—of books with “materia medica” in the title, they will likely focus on substances derived from plants. Peter Peyto Good (1789–1875) did not set himself to swim completely against this tide: before he turned his attention to the animal kingdom, he had edited The Family Flora and Materia Medica Botanica (1845).
His animal material medica, “Containing the Scientific Analysis, Natural History and Chemical and Medical Properties and Uses of the Substances That Are the Products of Beasts, Birds, Fishes or Insects,” is a kind of hybrid. It combines elements from traditional natural history compendia, including the bestiaries of the medieval period, with elements that reflect the zoology of his time. The introduction offers a brief outline of formal scientific taxonomy and locates each of the twenty-four creatures to be discussed within this system, but that is not the order in which they appear (at least if buyers followed Good’s instructions about how to bind the installments—since each animal appeared in a separate installment, idiosyncratic orderings were theoretically possible). Instead, the table of contents suggests a view of the world as composed of randomly related phenomena: thus the sheep is followed by the oyster and the stag is followed by the blood-sucking leech.
The entries all ostensibly follow the same general structure. Headed by the Latinate and vernacular names of the creature, they first specify the nature and uses of the medicinal substance it produces, then proceed through sections on scientific analysis, natural history, and chemical and medical properties and uses. Sometimes Good offers surprising information. For example, he lists rattlesnake venom as a treatment for alcoholism, mercury poisoning, erysipelas (an acute bacterial infection associated with skin rash), fainting fits, and hydrophobia (rabies).
Despite their shared design the entries vary greatly in length and in the kind of material they contain; up-to-date zoology rubs elbows with folk wisdom and anecdote. Nor did Good always apply the same standard of relevance. To return to the rattlesnake, most of the long discussion of its “medical properties and uses” details treatments for snakebite; relatively little concerns the palliative qualities of venom. When Good considers farmyard species, most of which find a place in his catalogue, he tends to include digressions about the history and merits of their constituent breeds. The entry on the cochineal insect, on the other hand, fulfills its initial promise completely and efficiently, explaining how the creatures are collected, ground into powder, and then used to cure neuralgia and to color tinctures and ointments.
Even the illustrations reflect the miscellaneous traditions from which Good drew. (By the 1840s lithographs could be inexpensively reproduced, and brightly colored illustrations were available in books for popular audiences.) Some of the images, like that of the cochineal insect, recall an older botanical convention of disaggregation and separation, but most, like that of the cuttlefish, enjoy the richly delineated settings that came to characterize nineteenth-century natural history publishing.
Harriet Ritvo is Arthur J. Conner Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she teaches courses on British history, environmental history, the history of natural history, and the history of human-animal relations. Her books include The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age; The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination; The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism; and Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras: Essays on Animals and History.