Ninzin root – or an eighteenth-century placebo

In the seventeenth century, Europeans were very interested in the new plant species discovered in faraway regions. In the Netherlands in particular, the spice trade with the East Indies flourished: nutmeg, ginger, pepper and cloves were staples.  However, there were also less common plants. In the letters that the famous Dutch scholar and physician Herman Boerhaave wrote to a friend and colleague in Austria, I noticed several mentions of a root called ‘Ninzin,’ which was extremely rare and expensive. Here’s a translation of what Boerhaave wrote (unfortunately the responses of his friend Bassand were lost):

I am sorry about the enormous price of these trivia, one ounce of Ninzin root, and not even the best, has been sold for forty Dutch guilders. I would barely buy them for a trifle. That is how silly they are.[1] 

‘China root’ or ginger, from An Embassy for the East India Company, Johan Nieuhoff, 1669, p. 213.

‘China root’ or ginger, from An Embassy for the East India Company, Johan Nieuhoff, 1669, p. 213.

Apparently Bassand, Boerhaave’s friend, had asked him to buy some Ninzin root for him, but Boerhaave thought this was ridiculously priced: indeed, 40 Dutch guilders in 1718 would be about € 437.23 today![2] However, it seems Bassand was determined to get himself some of the stuff, as over four years later Boerhaave wrote to Bassand:

In all of Holland only one spice trader has the real Ninzi root, but this greedy scoundrel does not even want to give half an ounce, before he has been paid 27 guilders: so the rich are sent away empty handed. I, however, do not appreciate it more than the roots of sweet fennel, which it resembles.[3]  

In the subsequent letter, almost six months later, it turns out Bassand has sent Boerhaave 27 guilders through a mutual acquaintance, and Boerhaave has sent him half an ounce of Ninzi root in return.[4] It is not until 1728 that Boerhaave writes more about the Ninzi root and why he thinks so little of it, but when he does, it is clarifying:

The root of the Chinese Nin-Zeng or Ginzeng, or Japanese Nisi is the most important thing used by the rich for afflictions of the heart, and for afflictions of pre-hysterical and pre-epileptic nature; in Asia, China, Japan and Tartary it is so highly esteemed, that its users are promised a long, fertile, and healthy life. I have tried it with several patients. And what is true of it? Idle chatter, no more. To me, its smell, taste, nature and power appear to be very similar to that of the root of the common fennel. For an ounce of real radix, 25 to 30 Dutch guilders are paid. Princes are given half a drachm, as an infusion with water, wine, or some similar fluid. The price is a recommendation. Things that are sold for high prices are more effective, and so the rich are sent away empty-handed.[5] 

By now, it is clear that what Boerhaave was writing about was ginseng root, indigenous to parts of North America and Asia. However, ginseng did not grow in the East Indies, but mainly in China and Japan. Although the Netherlands did have trading posts there in the first decades of the eighteenth century, Chinese and Japanese officials strictly controlled the trade, whereas in the East Indies the Dutch grew spices themselves. Hence the outrageous prices and the tinge of exotic exclusiveness of ginseng in early eighteenth-century Europe.

Although ginseng is now much cheaper and widely available, we still like to think it has special qualities. One of the biggest Dutch tea brands today sells a range of teas labelled ‘herbal goodness.’ The bags of green tea with ginseng and guarana are marketed claiming that ginseng enhances concentration: ‘Discover the power of ginseng!’ Well, for the current price it won’t hurt to try, although it might be an acquired taste.

[1] G.A. Lindeboom (ed.), Boerhaave’s Brieven aan Bassand. Haarlem: Erven F. Bohn, 1957. Letter of 23 September 1718, p. 64. All translations mine.

[3] G.A. Lindeboom. Letter of 3 December 1722, p. 85. The words ‘so the rich are send away empty handed’ refers to Luke 1:53, a verse about God’s mercy for the poor and his punishment of the greedy.

[4] Ibidem. Letter of 6 May 1723, p. 86.

[5] Ibidem. Letter of 24 June 1728, p. 170-1.

Harelip, devil’s bite?

In many eighteenth-century collections of human anatomy, one or more preparations of animals with cleft palate, a congenital defect still commonly known as harelip, can be found.

A foetal pig showing division of the spine, mandible and tongue, with a marked cleft in the palate. From the collection of John Hunter (1728-1793). Collection of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, London.

A foetal pig showing division of the spine, mandible and tongue, with a marked cleft in the palate. From the collection of John Hunter (1728-1793). Collection of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, London.

A quick exploration of the history of cleft palate tells us more about why these animal preparations were included in collections of human anatomy at a time when comparative anatomy was not a discipline yet. We probably all know or have seen somebody who has a corrected cleft lip, as the incidence is about one in 700 births nowadays, making it fairly common. (In comparison: the incidence for neural tube defects such as spina bifida is one in about 17,000 births, and for anencephaly –the absence of a large part of the brain and the skull- one in 10,000.)

Nowadays cleft palate can be treated successfully, but in the eighteenth century this was not at all the case. Most children born with a severe cleft palate died of malnourishment within weeks because of feeding problems. In less severe cases, sometimes an attempt was made to correct the cleft lip.

J. Guillemeau, operations on the cheek, for harelip. Wellcome Library, London

J. Guillemeau, operations on the cheek, for harelip. From “The Frenche chirurgerye,” 1597. Wellcome Library, London

However, pre-anaesthetic, this was a rather cruel and potentially traumatizing procedure. The patient was held tight by an assistant, while the surgeon cut open and subsequently stitched together the two halves of the lip with thin needles. The needles then remained in the lip and were taken out one by one over the course of days or even weeks.[1]

Even if the operation was successful, a child with a corrected cleft lip faced a lifelong stigma. Now known to be caused genetic or environmental factors, or a by a combination of both, in the eighteenth century cleft palate was still commonly explained by the theory of maternal imagination.[2] This meant that people believed that birth defects were impressed on the foetus during pregnancy because the mother had seen, imagined, or done something. In the case of cleft palate, explanation varied from the mother having unchaste thoughts to her having had intercourse with the devil. After all, in classic iconography as well as popular believe, the hare represents lust, probably because of its speed of reproduction, and sometimes the devil itself. No wonder many sufferers of cleft palate find the term ‘harelip’ offensive!

Many eighteenth-century anatomists and physicians already realized that it was unlikely that the maternal imagination, or morals for that matter, could influence the foetus. After all, deformations like cleft palate also occurred in animals, which have neither imagination nor reason. To make their point, these men started to collect animals with birth defects that were also found in humans, and they recorded case histories to prove the maternal imagination was a fantasy. For example, Dutch anatomists Eduard Sandifort wrote of a new born girl with a severe cleft palate that she was her parents’ eleventh child, the first with such a defect, and that they were good Christians.[3] However, the idea of the maternal imagination influencing the foetus was hard to eradicate: even in 1889, the authors of an encyclopaedia of children’s diseases still felt it was necessary to note that

“Pre-natal maternal impressions are often claimed as the cause of these marks [birth marks], and many cases are cited which lend a considerable degree of plausibility to the claim. It is more rational, however, to explain these cases by the principle of coincidence.”[4]


[1] A. Nuck, Operationes Et Experimenta Chirurgica (Leiden: Samuel Luchtmans, 1733), p. 73-77.

[2] M. Hagner, ‘Enlightened Monsters’, in William Clark, Jan Golinski and Simon Schaffer (eds.) The Sciences in Enlightened Europe (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 175-217.

[3] E. Sandifort, Observationes Anatomico-Pathologicae 2 vols. (Leiden: P. v.d. Eyk et D. Vygh, 1777-1781), vol. II, liber IV, caput III, 29- 38.

[4] Cyclopaedia of the diseases of children, medical and surgical. The articles written especially for the work by American, British, and Canadian authors. John M. Keating (ed.), (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott company, 1889), p.104.