Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Secret Remedies and the Medical Needs of the French State: The Career of Adrien Helvetius, 1662-1727

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Secret Remedies and the Medical Needs of the French State: The Career of Adrien Helvetius, 1662-1727

Article excerpt

In the final decades of the seventeenth century, proprietary drugs--usually called secret remedies (remedes secrets)--became a growing object of interest for the senior officials of the French state. Approved medical secrets stood at the basis of pharmaceutical monopolies and were legitimated by the state through royal privileges, which granted vendors exclusive rights over the sale of their drugs. (1) Such remedies are commonly discussed by historians interested in domestic medicine, the circulation of print and manuscript recipes, and the emerging consumer marketplace for proprietary drugs. (2) Their relevance to the interests of the early modern state are less well-known.

The career of Adrien Helvetius (1662-1727) offers a useful avenue for exploring the connections between secret remedies and state interests. Helvetius secured a royal privilege that gave him monopoly rights over his drug, became a military-medical contractor, and ultimately built a distribution system in conjunction with the office of the Controller General of Finance, which annually supplied each of France's thirty generalites (the territory administered by an intendant) with thirteen medicine chests (boites de remedes) containing a panoply of different drugs, to be distributed charitably to the rural poor at royal expense. The supply system was continued by his son Jean-Claude Adrien Helvetius (1685-1755), passed into the hands of other court physicians, survived into the early years of the Revolution, and, after an interruption, was re-established under the Empire.

Today Helvetius is chiefly remembered for having popularized the use of ipecacuanha root, the South American plant that formed the key ingredient of his remedy against dysentery. In this respect his career is often compared to that of Robert Talbor (1642-1681), whose proprietary remede anglois re-popularized the use of South American cinchona bark against intermittent fevers and was likewise generously rewarded by Louis XIV. Indeed, although the theoretical and practical details of his ipecacuanha preparation fall beyond the scope of this essay, Helvetius's successes can in large measure be attributed to his realization that in addition to being a powerful emetic (a drug that triggers vomiting), ipecacuanha root was also a "specific" against dysentery in much the same way that cinchona was a "specific" against intermittent fevers. (3) The notion of a medicinal specific--a drug that responded to a defined disease condition in all patients regardless of their individual humoral constitutions--was in fact critical to population-scale treatments and found early proponents among military practitioners. (4)

Laurence Brockliss and Colin Jones have pointed to Helvetius as an early exemplar of the "new medical entrepreneur" of the eighteenth century, but his career has not been explored in detail since Louis Lafond's 1926 La dynastie des Helvetius, which continues to furnish the basis for virtually all modern accounts. (5) Lafond uncovered several useful primary sources, but his main goal was not so much to contextualize Adrien Helvetius's career within the history of medicine as it was to set down the biographical details of the family lineage leading up to his famous grandson, Claude-Adrien Helvetius (1715-1771), the financier-turned-Enlightenment philosophe whose 1758 work De l'esprit was met with public outcry for its supposed atheist materialism. (6) Finally, Alexandre Lunel's recent account of the royal medical household focuses on the professional reform and regulatory projects of the royal first physicians and surgeons and makes only occasional mention of figures like Helvetius, whose activities involved direct commercial relations with the state. (7)

While a full reassessment of Helvetius's career would be better suited to a monograph, I will here focus on three critical junctures in his developing relationship with the state. The first section, focusing on the latter 1680s. …

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