Poisons: A History


Course Title

Poisons: A History

Course Description

This course will take poisons as its primary site of inquiry.
Poisons aren't what they seem. Sometimes they look like food. Sometimes they look like drugs. From cinnabar to cinnamon, from dragon blood to goat bezoars, poisons result from careful human construction, collection, and creation. They are objects of early chemistry. Far from killing us, poisons have been central to the history of medicine. Physicians in the past and present monitor dosage, drug combination, and drug preparation to mitigate poison toxicity while still maintaining drugs' therapeutic
potencies. Knowledge about poisons, in other words, quietly undergirds most of human civilization. Poisons are what keep us alive. Or not. This class comes to understand poisons in three ways. First, it takes on individual poisons (mercury, opium, among others) to introduce major themes in the history of science and science studies. Second, it engages with global perspectives in the history of medicine to understand how poisons were deployed, refined, and neutralized around the world. Third, it introduces frameworks in the philosophy of chemistry to analyze the social, conceptual, and practical demands on empiricism. Together, these three perspectives will shift students' perspectives on poisons from objects that kill to critiquing them as objects that are intimately tied to ideas of cure.

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Poisons: A History