Making Early Modern Medicine: Reproducing Swedish Bitters

Ambix. 2016 May;63(2):162-83. doi: 10.1080/00026980.2016.1212886. Epub 2016 Sep 7.


Historians of science and medicine have rarely applied themselves to reproducing the experiments and practices of medicine and pharmacy. This paper delineates our efforts to reproduce "Swedish Bitters," an early modern composite medicine in wide European use from the 1730s to the present. In its original formulation, it was made from seven medicinal simples: aloe, rhubarb, saffron, myrrh, gentian, zedoary and agarikon. These were mixed in alcohol together with some theriac, a composite medicine of classical origin. The paper delineates the compositional history of Swedish Bitters and the medical rationale underlying its composition. It also describes how we go about to reproduce the medicine in a laboratory using early modern pharmaceutical methods, and analyse it using contemporary methods of pharmaceutical chemistry. Our aim is twofold: first, to show how reproducing medicines may provide a path towards a deeper understanding of the role of sensual and practical knowledge in the wider context of early modern medical culture; and second, how it may yield interesting results from the point of view of contemporary pharmaceutical science.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Drug Compounding / history*
  • History of Pharmacy*
  • History, 18th Century
  • Sweden