How Empire turned people into patients: Big Pharma’s Early Modern roots

Date / time: 21 June, 6:30 pm - 8:00 pm

How Empire turned people into patients: Big Pharma's Early Modern roots

British Society of the History of Pharmacy

During the eighteenth century, trends in overseas trade, enslaved labour, and colonial warfare hastened a turn toward viewing individuals as interchangeable patients who could be targets of similar medicines. Seeing people as interchangeable patients has had significant consequences for healthcare: altering practices and supporting a globalized pharmaceutical industry.

Before germ theory, antibiotics, or x-rays—before so much of what people think makes medicine “modern”—a key part of how we relate to our bodies was reshaped by the exigencies of the early modern British empire. Drawing on historical examples from my book, Merchants of Medicines, this lecture traces the emergence of an expectation that people could be interchangeable patients from the late seventeenth century to the ramifications of such an idea in today’s “big pharma.”

Zachary Dorner is a historian and an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Maryland (USA). His first book, Merchants of Medicines: The Commerce and Coercion of Health in Britain’s Long Eighteenth Century, is available from the University of Chicago Press. His work can also be found in the William and Mary Quarterly, Journal of British Studies, Recipes Project, and Washington Post.

Please RSVP at to be sent joining details on the day of the event via email. This event will take place on Zoom (limited capacity) and YouTube.

(Image: The Dance of Death, Frontispiece. Coloured aquatint by Thomas Rowlandson, 1816. Image courtesy Wellcome Collection.)