Brown Bag Lecture: Lies, Damned Lies, and Experiments: The Problem of Mendacity in Early Modern Medical Narratives

Lunchtime Lectures
Monday, October 17, 2016
12:00 p.m.
Chemical Heritage Foundation
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a talk with Mark Waddell, one of our 2016–2017 Allington Fellows. 

In 1658 the English diplomat Kenelm Digby published his Discours . . . touchant la guérison des plaies par la poudre de sympathie, or A discourse on the healing of wounds by the powder of sympathy. Therein he described a lengthy experiment in which he healed the wound of a close friend using a remedy of Digby’s own making, his “powder of vitriol” or, as it was more popularly known, the powder of sympathy. This powder and its close antecedent, the weapon salve, were not in fact Digby’s invention at all; they had been topics of debate and discussion for several decades before the appearance of Digby’s Discourse. Nonetheless, the experiment he described would be cited by proponents of sympathetic healing into the 18th century and his Discourse reprinted more than 20 times.

Problematically, we now know that Digby’s experiment never took place. It was a fabrication, produced by a man later pilloried by Henry Stubbes as “the very Pliny of our age for lying.” Nor was Digby’s the only case of mendacity in descriptions of this highly controversial remedy. How, then, does this behavior square with the importance assigned by historians to the “circumstantial narrative,” one of the cornerstones of the “new science” that emerged in the 17th century? How should we deal with fabrications, deceit, and lies? And what does Digby’s case tell us about credibility and plausibility in early modern science and medicine?

Mark Waddell is an associate professor of history at Michigan State University. His first book, Jesuit Science and the End of Nature’s Secrets, was published with Ashgate (now Routledge) in 2015. His next project, which he will be researching at the Institute, uses the early modern medical remedy known as the weapon salve or powder of sympathy to explore notions of plausibility, mendacity, and credibility in 17th-century science and medicine.