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School of Arts and Sciences

Research Award for Poisons of the Past

Monday, June 6, 2016

History Professor Alisha Rankin receives prestigious fellowship for scholarship on 16th-century medical trials and ethics

Renaissance wine goblets
Alisha Rankin
Assistant Professor
Alisha Rankin


Assistant Professor Alisha Rankin in the Department of History was named a 2014-15 Charles A. Ryskamp Fellow by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). The fellowship program, generously funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is awarded to exceptional early-career scholars pursuing significant projects in humanities scholarship.

The Ryskamp fellowship will support Professor Rankin's forthcoming book project, The Poison Trials: Antidotes and Experiment in Early Modern Europe, which explores how ideas about experimental drug trials were formed in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. "Antidotes were highly prized owing to fears about poisoning, especially at princely courts, and they increasingly came to be seen as cure-alls," says Rankin. "They were thus one of the most sought-after category of drugs in Renaissance Europe."

The fellowship is specifically awarded to individuals whose scholarly contributions have already advanced their fields, and Rankin's first project in historical medicine is a compelling case. Her first book, Panaceia's Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany "focused on sixteenth-century aristocratic women healers and their world, including their high status and renown as healers, the pharmaceutical operations they oversaw—including entire distilling houses in some cases—and their recipes for medicinal remedies." Panaceia's Daughters won the 2014 Gerald Strauss Prize for Reformation History.

Rankin's fascination with the history of medicine and the scientific method inspired her current Poison Trials project. While she was researching her first book in a small town in Germany, a helpful archivist "suggested that if I was interested in medicine in the sixteenth century, I might want to look at a file they had on a condemned criminal who was used for a test on poison," says Rankin. "It gave fascinating insight into some of the ethical and religious concerns the prince and his advisors had about using a criminal for a poison trial."

The Poison Trials project also presents an opportunity to expand the reach of humanities in the sciences, which supports the mission of the ACLS to advance humanistic studies in all fields of learning. Rankin observes that "Recently there has been an increasing focus on the medical humanities, and I think it is coming out of this recognition that an understanding of the diversity of human experience is important in medical training." She recognizes "there is a yawning gap between twenty-first-century medicine and its sixteenth-century precursors, but we should recognize a certain continuity in the kinds of problems we try to solve—even if we arrive at very different answers."