The Wondrous Drug
An Asian plant with mysterious cathartic powers, medicinal rhubarb spurned European trade expeditions and obsessive scientific inquiry from the Renaissance until the 20th 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. This study traces the efforts of the explorers, traders, botanists, gardeners, physicians and pharmacists who tried to adapt rhubarb for convenient use in Europe. The history includes sections on the geographic and economic importance of rhubarb, which explain how the plant became a major state monopoloy for Russia and an important commodity for the East India companies. There is also a discussion of rhubarb's emergence as an international culinary craze during the 19th and 20th centuries.
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What Reviewers Are Saying
"Foust has written an interesting book, long on commercial and botanical detail.... Provides a clear view of another building-block in the emergence of the modern world."--"The Times Literary Supplement"
Perhaps you thought that the great ages of discovery and exploration, circa 1492 and all that, were based on quests for silk and spices, porcelain and gold. True - but the quest was for rhubarb as well. That thesis is convincingly demonstrated in this prodigious work of scholarship by Univ. of Maryland historian Foust. Why rhubarb? And what rhubarb? Well, the ancients knew of the wonderful cathartic powers of the roots of this robust plant rumored to be native to somewhere beyond Greece and Rome ("rhu" was also "rha," supposedly an old name for the Volga river; "barb" meant somewhere beyond the civilized realms of the Mediterranean). It appears that the pulverized roots and rhizomes of rhubarb provided both gentle purgative powers as well as "binding" or astringent qualities. But what rhubarb? The true or "officinal" medicinal rhubarb is not to be confused with the red-stalked plant served up as stewed fruit or pie, nor with various rhubarbs of inferior medical potency. The very best came from China, introduced into the West through Russian caravans traveling overland in the north or by Arabian trade routes or coastal merchants in the south. Not until the opening of China in the last century was the source officially established. Foust's impeccable account is a feast for scholars, but perhaps too rich for some casual readers. Nevertheless, the text, with its detailed cultural lore, botany, history of medicine, pharmacology, trade and exploration, plus a cast of hundreds, makes an essential point: It was the long domination of the humoral theory of disease that created the market for rhubarb. The need to expel four humors from the body to cure disease drove the quest for the kinder, gentler, "perfect" purgative. And it works, too. (Kirkus Reviews)