Stanley Feldman. From Poison Arrows to Prozac: How Deadly Toxins Changed Our Lives Forever. London: Metro Publishing, 2009. 272 pp. $17.95, £9.99.
Stanley Feldman presents a chronology of curare use in From Poison Arrows to Prozac. He begins with Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World and the subsequent discovery by European explorers of the poisoned arrows the Amazon natives used in hunting. The poison, eventually named curare by Europeans, kills by muscle paralysis—causing suffocation by paralyzing the lungs. Before showing how important trial and error is to medicine, Feldman engagingly depicts the studies that determined how curare works in the nervous system. Curare is still used in anesthesia today, although Feldman writes that synthetic versions of curare are more often used than curare itself. While From Poison Arrows to Prozac is an interesting read, the title is quite misleading: Prozac is not mentioned until the epilogue and appears to be an afterthought.–Victoria M. Indivero
Walter W. Woodward. Prospero’s America: John Winthrop Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606–1676. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010, 336 pp. $45.00
Woodward traces the connections between alchemical philosophy and practice using 17th-century Connecticut governor John Winthrop, Jr., both a Puritan and an alchemist, as an example. In doing so he corrects earlier accounts of Puritan culture as being opposed to entrepreneurial profit and suspicious of all “occult” activity. Woodward accomplishes this feat by revealing Winthrop’s alchemical medical practice, his desire for religious and social tolerance, and his economic plans for iron works and silver mines.What Woodward describes as “Christian alchemy” informed Winthrop’s goals and activities in the New World. Likewise, a religiously based alchemical philosophy grounded Winthrop’s efforts to improve the material and spiritual state of humanity, and in so doing hasten the return of Christ. Especially striking is Woodward’s account of Winthrop’s pivotal role in preventing convictions in witch trials. While Woodward’s inferences from circumstantial evidence may not always be fully convincing, his depiction of Winthrop and his world, especially the importance of alchemy in New England culture, is persuasive and illuminating.–Evan Ragland
©2010 Chemical Heritage Foundation