University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cabinet of Natural History > How to rediscover a medical secret in eighteenth-century France: the lost recipe of the Chevalier de Guiller's powder febrifuge

How to rediscover a medical secret in eighteenth-century France: the lost recipe of the Chevalier de Guiller's powder febrifuge

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My talk will trace the fortunes of a single proprietary drug, namely the poudre fĂ©brifuge of the Chevalier de Guiller, a remedy for intermittent fevers which was granted a monopoly privilege by Louis XIV in 1713. The drug was based on cheap, locally-available plants, but their exact identity as well as the processing techniques needed to transform them were lost to Guiller’s heirs because he died in 1729 without revealing his secret. The next generation of would-be proprietary drug monopolists were put in the position of needing to ‘rediscover’ the secret of the poudre fĂ©brifuge in order to renew their royal monopoly privilege and to secure a lucrative contract to supply it in bulk to the French army.

But was the drug really the same? Drawing on surviving judicial records, I will explore the way in which trade secrecy could be a double-edged sword for early medical monopolists: it protected them from competitors and counterfeiters but could also opened the possibility of breaks in transmission across generations. I will also use the case to pose questions about substitution, modification and counterfeiting in eighteenth-century pharmacy, and trace the ways in which information about a drug could sometimes prove to be inseparable from the embodied expertise of the actors who had produced it.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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