Lectures and Laboratories: Transformations in Nineteenth Century Materia Medica Education

  • Jemma Houghton (Discussant)

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentationResearch


Materia medica - the use of natural products for therapeutic purposes - was of vital importance for the medical student during the nineteenth century. Most qualifications allowing admission onto the Medical Register, introduced by the Medical Act of 1858, required the subject. Yet despite its significance, materia medica pedagogy during this period has often been neglected in the historiography, with few expanding beyond anecdotal references when discussed in an educational context. This paper will therefore focus on some of the transformations within materia medica pedagogy during the latter half of the nineteenth century, namely the impact of specialisation and the introduction of laboratory medicine. It will demonstrate that the discovery of the active compounds within natural specimens did not displace Galenical preparations but rather both avenues of knowledge remained important within the field. It will also establish that by the end of the nineteenth century the term materia medica ceased to mean the same as it did at the beginning, drastically altering how the subject was both perceived and taught. This paper will make evident that by the end of the nineteenth century the subject of materia medica at medical schools had fundamentally transformed, which in part reflected a more general trend within the field.

This paper was given at the British Society for the History of Science Postgraduate Conference, University of Manchester, 4-6 April 2018
Period5 Apr 2018
Held atBritish Society for the History of Science, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionNational


  • history of medicine
  • history of pharmacy
  • Materia Medica
  • BSHS