pierre laszlo

A whiff of camphor

Pierre Laszlo*, Ecole polytechnique and University of Liège

At the very beginning of the sixteenth century, Johann Wimpheling published in Strassburg De Integritate Libellus. This small book advises on chastity Jakob Sturm, a young man who was studying theology, and who in later life became an important leader of the Reformation. Among the variety of remedies against concupiscence, when prayer and study become insufficient to guard against womanly wiles, Wimpheling recommends in the last resort having a sniff of camphor.

Why camphor ? How did this natural product, originating in Asian countries such as Taiwan or Ceylon, become acculturated in Western Europe ? Arab traders brought it to the Middle East. Camphor became part of the pharmacopeia in Baghdad around the eighth century : it is mentioned in the Kuran, and it recurs in The Thousand and One Nights (in the Sindbad cycle of tales especially). In later centuries, Portuguese and Dutch traders included camphor in their cargoes of spices brought to Europe from the East.

The talk will explain why camphor was elected as a drug. That this substance was reputed to stifle the libido, as Wimpheling echoed, was one among a number of fascinating attributes. From its use to decrease masculine ardor, camphor switched to a standard means for men to control female sexuality ; which will be documented from writings such as those by Moyse Charas and Nicolas Lémery, in the seventeenth century.

This was the time for the appearance of chemistry. The camphor case documents how the new discipline was an offspring of pharmacy. The time of the Enlightenment, illustrated by writings of physicians from the Philadelphia School, such as John Church or Benjamin Rush, is the classic period for routine use of camphor as a household drug. It is illustrated, not only by the medicine chest which Meriwhether Lewis took on his exploration trip of the American West, also by the " Confessions of a Camphor-Eater, " a case of use of camphor as an addictive drug.

The continued camphor story is one, not only of the chemical transformations of the molecule, also of the establishment of its structure starting with the elementary composition (erroneously determined by Liebig, corrected by Dumas), and of the slow demise from a versatile drug to a chemical molecule.

The whole tenor of this presentation is for the history of a molecule such as camphor to be an important part of, not only the history of science and medicine, of cultural history as well.


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