Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Robert Hooke Experiments with a Plant from India, 1689: "Very Merry...& Speaks Words without Coherence"
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
I've written five historical novels set during Restoration England (1660-1684), one of the most fascinating eras in English history. While my books have been focussed on the politics and scandals of the court of Charles II, there are a good many other things bubbling up in this time period as well. In many ways, the Restoration marks the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. The Royal Society is founded in 1660, scientists and philosophers like Sir Isaac Newton are making important discoveries, and even the King keeps a private "closet" for scientific experiments.
One of the leading men of this era was Robert Hooke (1635-1703), a natural philosopher and architect whose diverse achievements included creating the balance spring used in pocket watches and, as the author of the landmark book Micrographia, coined the word cell for biological organisms. But this was also the age of the polymath, and among the many papers that Dr. Hooke presented to his colleagues in the Royal Society was one on his experiments with a plant newly arrived in England from the East Indies, that, when properly administered, seemed to possess some very exciting qualities:
An Account of the Plant, call'd Bangue, before the Royal Society, Dec. 18. 1689.
It is a certain Plant which grows very common in India...and the Use thereof (tho' the Effects are very strange, and at first hearing, frightful enough) is very general and frequent...'Tis call'd, by the Moors, Gange...The Dose of it is about as much as may fill a common Tobacco-Pipe, the Leaves and Seeds being diced first, and pretty finely powdered. This Powder being chewed and swallowed, or washed down, by a small Cup of Water, doth, in a short Time, quite take away the Memory & Understanding; so that the Patient understands not, nor remembereth any Thing that he seeth, heareth, or doth, in that Extasie, but becomes, as it were, a mere Natural, being unable to speak a Word of Sense; yet is he very merry, and laughs, and sings, and speaks Words without any Coherence, not knowing what he saith or doth; yet is he not giddy, or drunk, but walks and dances and sheweth many odd Tricks; after a little Time he falls asleep, and sleepeth very soundly and quietly; and when he wakes, he finds himself mightily refresh'd, and exceeding hungry...The Plant is so like to Hemp, in all its Parts, both Seed, Leaves, Stalk, and Flower, that it may be said to be Indian Hemp....
From The Philosophical Experiments and Observations of the late Eminent Dr. Robert Hooke, London, 1726.
Above: Four Smokers by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)