The Medicine Thieves

The European conquests of the Americas brought war, pestilence and death to the communities that populated the continent. Infecting of the Amerindian people with disease cultures to which their bodies where not accustomed caused wide spread devastation, especially in New England, where the population was so affected by small pox that the land seemed to the settlers to be a new and empty Eden, ripe for the taking.

ah02_europeanexplorersmThe routes of European colonisation of The America’s. Europeans brought illness and disease that the native people were not able to tolerate.


This area of history has been studied in great detail in the past, it has been recorded that Europeans came and upset the ‘noble savages’ of America, who’s simple lives could not cope with the introduction of such sicknesses.

Much of this assessment, however, stems from the writings of Rousseau that first imagined the Amerindian as a noble savage, simple and animalistic, ideal but not intelligent. Benjamin Rush, whose address to the Philosophical Society in Philadelphia noted the effective nature of Amerindian medicines in curing the simple external injuries common to all animals, was sure to inform his listeners that their medical knowledge was not gained from any intellectual understanding of cures, they died in such numbers because they did not truly understand the properties of their own remedies and as such could not deal with the complexities of European diseases. Amerindian medicine had a past but no future.

Benjamin_Rush_Painting_by_PealeBenjamin Rush.


Significantly, by removing the Amerindians right to intellectual comprehension of the medicinal properties of their surroundings any claim of ownership to ingredients or knowledge could also be removed.

The medical properties of the ‘new’ world where thus open to the ravages of European collectors and apothecaries who could subsequently call the use of these new remedies discoveries in western and white learning, with little or no acknowledgement of their true sources.

In the eighteenth century in America it was common for apprentice apothecaries to be sent into the woods to search for medicines used by Native Americans. Ingredients such as hemp, papoose root, tobacco, bloodroot and mandrake were commonly removed to the shelves of these colonial apothecaries.

incense-over-a-medicine-bundle-hidatsaA Native American tribesman burning herbs and incense.


Perhaps the most famous of European medicinal plundering is the harvesting of Peruvian Bark containing quinine, an ingredient used to prevent mosquito bites lowering the risks of contracting malaria. This native remedy yielded such high economic rewards for the Spanish that controlled its supply that other European collectors, physicians and entrepreneurs struck out in search of their own medical marvels.

Hans Sloan, an Irish physician and collector born in 1660, based his career upon the acquisition of native medical and botanical wonders. He collected over eight hundred species of plant on his travels and made his fortune through investments in the aforementioned bark and his own efforts to pioneer milk chocolate as a remedy. This alongside his ownership of a number of plantations in the West Indies, where further exploitation occurred.

hans-portraitHans Sloan.


A brief glimpse into the medicine thieves of European colonial expansion in the Americas this may be, but it is important to note that amongst the vast number of works on this period of history, and within the separate school of medical history, there is barely any mention of the debt owed to the Native Americans in their medical skills and knowledge within what has often been considered, the Europe drive towards modern medicine.

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