History Department
History Department

Benjamin Breen, Ph. D. Candidate, garners numerous awards for work on early modern drug trade

Tue, May 7, 2013
Benjamin Breen, Ph. D. Candidate, garners numerous awards for work on early modern drug trade
Benjamin Breen, Ph.D. Candidate of History

This year History Ph.D. student Benjamin Breen has not only co-created The Appendix, an extraordinarily smart online magazine and blog for historians of all stripes, including cartoonists and fiction writers, but he also has won three fellowships, each extremely difficult to get: a McNeil Center of Early American Studies Dissertation Fellowship (University of Pennsylvania); a Mellon-Council of European Studies Dissertation Completion Fellowship (Columbia University); and the second highest University of Texas honor for PhD students university-wide, the William Powers Continuing Graduate Fellowship.
His record is stunning. It includes 10 other national and international fellowships: a Fulbright to Portugal; two separate research fellowships to the Huntington and the John Carter Brown Libraries; a research fellowship by the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS);  a dissertation fellowship by New York Academy of Medicine;  a research fellowship by the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy in Madison, Wisconsin;  an Andrew W. Mellon Pre-Dissertation Research Fellowship by the Council for European Studies; and a J.B. Harley Fellowship in the History of Cartography. He has also won fellowships in Portugal, one by the Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD) and another by the Directorate-General of Portuguese Archives (DGARQ).
Ben delivered papers at conferences organized by the London School of Economics, the Omohundro Institute, the History of Medicine Department at Yale, the Council for European Studies, the Association of American Geographers, and the University of Edinburgh and the National Library of Scotland.
Ben’s dissertation focuses on the seventeenth-century Portuguese imperial pharmaceutical culture and the impact it had on the early-modern global ecological transformations first unleashed by the so-called Columbian exchange. Ben argues that Lusophone merchants deeply influenced the medical cultures of Africa, Asia, America, and Europe by moving “drogas” and materia medica around the world. Tracing urban medical cultures of cities like London and Amsterdam, Ben sheds light on the impact of this global circulation of knowledge spearheaded by Portuguese middlemen. Ben demonstrates the numerous connections between, say, the Royal Society in London and Portuguese knowledge brokers.
Most of the literature takes the Columbian exchange to be an impersonal process, the unintended consequence of commercial greed.  Ben focuses on individuals. According to Ben, Portuguese sailors, physicians, gardeners, missionaries, and apothecaries played significant, yet unrecognized roles in these exchanges. Beginning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Portuguese married into local communities in China, Japan, Indonesia, India, East Africa, West Africa, and Brazil and created a global empire of “go-betweens”. These cultural brokers tapped into the world-wide store of local knowledge and created a global materia medica with the help of Portuguese converso mercantile networks.  The Portuguese Jesuits, along with that order’s network of global outposts in the “tropics,” also facilitated the transfers. The resulting flow of information of botanical resources ultimately transformed whole areas of culture at a planetary scale, including the dying of textiles, culinary traditions, and medical practices.
Besides elucidating the creation of a global drug trade out of the encounter between local and the global knowledge brokers, Ben sheds light on the history of seventeenth-century European planetary expansion. Historians have privileged the role of the British and the Dutch empires in this expansion. Ben, however, shows that the Portuguese continued to play a central role well into the eighteenth century.  It is not only that the Dutch empire became possible with the capital and expertise of Portuguese Jewish converso networks that moved to Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century. It is also that the British were only able to gain a considerable foothold in the South Atlantic and Asia after they established a military, political, and commercial alliance with Portugal once the latter declared independence from Spain in 1640.
Ben has already published (or is about to publish) two refereed articles in leading journals (The Journal of Early Modern History, and History Compass).

Benjamin Breen's blog Res Obscura:

More about Benjamin Breen's dissertation project:

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