Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug

Clifford M. Foust
Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 394
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    Book Description:

    An Asian plant with mysterious cathartic powers, medicinal rhubarb spurred European trade expeditions and obsessive scientific inquiry from the Renaissance until the twentieth century. Rarely, however, had there been a plant that so thoroughly frustrated Europeans' efforts to acquire it and to master its special botanical and chemical properties. Here Clifford Foust presents the remarkable efforts of the explorers, traders, botanists, gardeners, physicians, and pharmacists who tried to adapt rhubarb for convenient use in Europe. His is an intriguing tale of how humans and their institutions have been affected by natural realities they do not entirely comprehend. Readers interested in the history of medicine, pharmaceutics, botany, or horticulture will be fascinated by this once-perplexing plant: highly valued by physicians for its cathartic properties, rhubarb resisted revealing its active chemical principles, had many widely varying species, and did not breed true by seed. This history includes sections on the geographic and economic importance of rhubarb--which explain how the plant became a major state monopoly for Russia and an important commodity for the East India companies--and a discussion of rhubarb's emergence as an international culinary craze during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

    Originally published in 1992.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6265-8
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-2)

    On first encounter, this book is a history of rhubarb (Rheum) from earliest times down to the present day. As such it may be read as the biography of a plant, albeit a plant with some unusual characteristics, a complicated history, and an immense value to society over centuries. In the history of therapeutics, there probably has been no medicine that has brought greater relief to larger numbers of people than has the powder made from the roots and rhizomes of medicinal rhubarb (R.officinale), yet at the same time there have been few botanicals that so thoroughly frustrated Europeans’...

  6. CHAPTER ONE The Roots of Rhubarb
    (pp. 3-17)

    There is no reference to rhubarb in the Bible. Although 120 plants are mentioned, including aloe, rue, and madder, along with the old standbys of frankincense and myrhh, rhubarb is not to be found either as a medicine or a foodstuff.¹

    The Greek and Roman worlds, however, knew of rhubarb and found many medicinal uses for it. Dioscorides of Anazarba, the Greek who flourished between 60 and 78 A.D. but whose influence extended down nearly to our day—“undoubtedly the greatest pharmacologist of all antiquity,” according to Singer—prescribed rhubarb mainly as a stomachic and anti-flatulent, but believed it useful...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Very True Rhubarb: The Seventeenth Century
    (pp. 18-45)

    A dozen years into the seventeenth century, a native of Dubrovnik, one Francisco Crasso, while traveling in the Rhodope Mountains of Thrace, happened upon an impressive, big-leafed plant near Rila of modern Bulgaria. It must have made his spirits leap. Here, growing right in Europe, was the very rhubarb of Dioscorides!

    This Ragusan merchant hastily gathered seeds from the plant and stowed them carefully in his pack, intending to deliver them to the botanical writer of Padua, Prospero Alpini, a man of already considerable reputation for his study of Egyptian plants, which included mention of rhubarb growing in Syria and...

  8. CHAPTER THREE The Russian Rhubarb Trade
    (pp. 46-78)

    Tobol’sk, although the capital of Siberia in the first half of the seven-teenth century, was a small and rude place, not much developed beyond the frontier river port it had been since its founding in 1587. From the late 1630s, however, its marketplace began to take on a new and somewhat cosmopolitan look; it attracted what was for the Russians a strange and exotic breed of peddlers and merchants, whom they loosely called Bukharans, presumably having come from those vaguely known Mongol homelands far south and east. These traders arrived in caravans of widely varying size, from three to eighty-two...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The East India Company and European Trade
    (pp. 79-95)

    Precisely when China rhubarb first reached London and achieved notice on the drug market we cannot say. But certainly some of it entered by way of the old cross-Asian caravan route ending in Mediterranean markets sometime in the late medieval period, long before the founding of the East India Company in 1600.¹ There are also scattered references to the return of small consignments of rhubarb throughout the first three quarters of the seventeenth century by agents or captains of the London East India Company. The Court of Committees of the Old or London East India Company, for example, announced in...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Collecting and Systematizing
    (pp. 96-111)

    The British consul in Smyrna in the early eighteenth century, James Sherard, then and now identified as an “amateur” botanist, among other things, was unsuited to the modern implications of that adjective: superficial or unskilled, a dabbler.¹ He was an amateur botanist, perhaps, but of good training, immense devotion, and laudable accomplishment, highly admired by his botanical contemporaries and happily remembered with the tide of Sherardian Professor of Botany, Oxford. This cousin of the tireless collector of exotic plants, James Petiver, absorbed as a young man an intense interest in plants and natural history while on his French tour, where...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Accommodating the Root: The Society of Arts and Other Promotions
    (pp. 112-135)

    The Society, Instituted at London, for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, better known as the Society of Arts (or since 1908 as the Royal Society of Arts), was founded in 1754, at the suggeston of William Shipley, a Northampton drawing master.¹ Shipley’s notion was to have a private society devoted to raising subscriptions to fund the distribution of premiums designed to stimulate selected improvements in manufactures, agriculture, commerce, the colonies, and related arts.² The suggestion was timely and apt; it fit circumstances of the day peculiarly well. The Society of Arts from the onset strove to put the...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Rhubarb as Medicine: The Eighteenth Century
    (pp. 136-157)

    From the early years of the eighteenth century until his death in 1738, Herman Boerhaave was Europe's most renowned and solicited physician. One of the reasons for this honor must certainly have been his unwillingness to adhere rigidly to any particular “school” of medical thinking. Cumston insists he was “the most perfect type of clinical professor,” who mixed iatromechanism and iatrochemistry while retaining a dollop of Galenism. “It was eclecticism made easy, and nothing more.”¹

    Although he was, over the years, taken lightly as an innovative theoretician, Boerhaave was an impressive systematist with regard to disease and its causes and...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT The Search Ends?
    (pp. 158-179)

    Europe’s mania for rhubarb in the second half of the eighteenth century energized the drive to find the plant in its native habitat. Was this plant with the unusual and distinctive palmated leaf the very same one that for so long had provided the officinal root for European pharmacies?¹ The question was direct enough; the answer was not quick in coming.

    China, nearly as much a hermit kingdom as Korea, scrupulously guarded the last vestiges of its rhubarb secret—the living plants and the lands of their growth. Bukharan rhubarb monopolists, at least, jealously and successfully protected the secrets of...

  14. CHAPTER NINE The Testing of Rhubarb
    (pp. 180-212)

    According to “Dr.” John Hill, that irrepressible publicist of the eighteenth century: “We have [rhapontic] at the Druggists, but there is no depending upon what they sell, for they seldom keep it genuine.”¹ In so writing, he said nothing that was not widely known or suspected: that English rhubarb was, as regularly as not, adulterated with less expensive ingredients and consumers had best beware. And if that was true of natively grown rhubarb, it was much more likely to be true of the more valuable imported roots (and, for that matter, of other expensive pharmaceuticals as well). Outraged by widespread...

  15. CHAPTER TEN Tarts and Wine
    (pp. 213-239)

    On an early spring morning in 1808 or 1809, Joseph Myatt, a nurseryman in Camberwell, South London, sent five bundles of rhubarb stalks to be sold in the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market. He gambled that these sour stalks, largely unknown to the metropolitan market until now, might appeal to appetites jaded from the previous season’s leftover shriveled apples and anticipating the China gooseberries and other early spring fruits yet to come.¹ The rhubarb species he offered came originally from Sir Joseph Banks’ gardener, Isaac Oldacre, who had brought seed from Russia, where he had worked. The plant apparently...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 240-248)

    That there was an infatuation with rhubarb as a highly desirable cathartic therapy and tonic in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Europe and America (and a fad for its use as a foodstuff especially in nineteenth-century Britain and America) is amply shown in the preceding chapters. Indeed, several editions of theEncyclopaedia Britannicaprovide a homely bit of evidence of the rise and decline in popularity of this wondrous aperient drug (and sour fruit/vegetable). Issued at the height of theRheum palmatumcraze, the first edition of 1769–71 printed an informed and remarkably long article, complete with Andrew Bell’s large and excellent...

  17. Notes to the Chapters, with List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 249-320)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 321-362)
  19. Index
    (pp. 363-371)