• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 27th February, 2009

Learning how to kill the kitten

To anyone 350 years old, or familiar for other reasons with conditions at the birth of modern science, today’s preoccupation with the travails of translational research - how to get efficacious programs into effective practice – may sound like a reverse.Today the journey begins with a laboratory solution and ends in the messy complexity of everyday life. Back in 1661, in the chambers of The Royal Society, it was more about retrieving the material of interventions that were all too shockingly effective in everyday life and subjecting them to laboratory experiment in order to contain their power.So let the generalization sweep past: see what little light English Restoration history has to shed on contemporary prevention science and its transitory worries with fidelity, dosage and cultural context.The source is a paper by Daniel Carey at the National University of Ireland, in which he writes about poison - specifically the dart and arrow poison once used by the indigenous people of Makassar in Indonesia against their Dutch and English colonizers (but more often against each other). It is a rumination on the power of the Upas Tree, Antiaris toxicaria, which flourishes in Sulawesi, Sumatra, Borneo and the Philippines. The Upas is a prodigiously useful tree. The fruit is edible; the timber is good for veneering and canoe building; the tannins in the bark are used by dyers; the leaves and roots have psychotropic value; seed, leaves and bark are used also as an astringent; the seeds. furthermore, are an antidysenteric; cordage and a strong, coarse cloth for curtains, drapery, upholstery, and slipcovers can be made from the pounded bark.But it has a difficult reputation. “This all-blasting tree / whose root is earth, whose leaves and branches be / the skies which rain their plagues on men like dew” just about covers it.The dark side of the Upas is darkest in the cocktail of cardenolides and alkaloids that circulates in the sap. Mingle Upas latex - shiny, brittle, black when dried – with animal blood, and cardiac arrest will follow so reliably that even to lie in the shade of the Upas was considered a fatal, Byronic mistake. As far as early translational research was concerned (remembering we are here considering knowledge traveling from the dangerous spice islands of south-east Asia to the manners of the Royal Society’s rooms in Holborn), the pressing question was how to reproduce experimentally what was known to work in field and forest.Accounts of the deadliness of the Upas already went back three centuries to the travels of Friar Odoric of Pordenone who had noticed the warriors of Sumatra in action: “when they blow into the cane, the bodkin flieth and striketh whom they list, and those who are thus stricken incontinently die”. Odoric also seems to have been responsible for putting it about that the only antidote to Upas poison was human excrement – the victim’s own - diluted in water and drunk down, when a remedy even so violently emetic would never be much good against a blood poison that stopped the heart. The fashion for baggy colonial clothing made of bodkin-proof sailcloth was more sensible, but the ordure cure was still current when the infant Royal Society began to take an interest.It did so for a number of reasons. The search for enlightenment was one, protecting commercial interests in the region clearly another. Cloves nutmeg, mace, sandalwood, tortoiseshell and slaves were all out there in abundance. But there was also an emerging argument that science and adventure were almost synonymous and interchangeable terms.So, from the outset, the issue of “philosophical travel” was vital to the Royal Society and “Directions for Sea-men, bound for far Voyages” were soon compiled with recommendations on topics including “the declination of the compass and variations in the needle, observation of tides, surveys of coastlines, changes in wind and weather, lightning, thunder, as well as comets and meteors, and collection of seawater samples in pint-sized bottles.”

The kitten was produced – alive

But the outlook was surely poor as long as the Asian explorer faced a threat of death to which he had no answer, other than to travel with his own liquefied excrement beside him in another pint-sized bottle. As early as May 1661 the subject of poison was on the Royal Society agenda. That June Cornelius Vermuyden produced a poisonous arrow; a dog was found to test it on, but it survived.Two years later, Daniel Carey reports, a courtier produced a poisoned dagger from the East Indies. But the Society minutes of 1st April regret: “the kitten wounded at the last meeting with the poisoned dagger was produced – alive.”Urgent correspondence with Batavia continued during 1664, by which time the second Anglo-Dutch war was in full swing. In March 1665, John Graunt, a London draper, produced some deadly “Macassar powder” for the Fellows to try. Another dog was duly injected, but we have it on the authority of Samuel Pepys that “it had no effect all the time we sat there”.Anecdote about the instantaneous effectiveness of Upas poison in the wild, how it traveled through blood like a flame along a gunpowder trail, continued to be shipped in. In London the Great Plague intruded temporarily, then the little nuisance of the Great Fire, but by October 1668 normal service had resumed.That year, curiosities returned from the East Indies by Sir Philibert Vernatti included three small cans of Macassar poison with a description of its use upon arrows (at last, a manual!). Fellows met on November 5. Another unfortunate cur was stabbed in the backside. Still no result.Never mind; early days.See: Carey D (2003) “The Political Economy of Poison: The Kingdom of Makassar and the Early Royal Society”, Renaissance Studies 17:3 pp 517-43 and Carey D (1997) “Compiling Nature’s History: Travellers and Travel Narratives in the Early Royal Society”, Annals of Science 54 pp 269-92.

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