Robert Hooke: The Keith Richards of Science

You may, if you are a science nerd, know Robert Hooke (1635-1703) as the author of the Micrographia, the accomplished observer who first identified cells; as the originator of Hooke’s law, a physical approximation of elasticity in springs; or as the man who claimed to have come up with gravitation before Newton. You may even know him as the cranky-but-loveable mascot of the Royal Society in Neal Stephenson’s historical-fiction epic The Baroque Cycle. But you probably don’t associate him with the birth of drug culture in England.

Along with his other duties as a university lecturer and a city surveyor charged with rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666, Hooke served as curator of experiments to the Royal Society. This meant, in practical terms, keeping rich dilettantes and impressionable visitors entertained at the regular meetings and trying to raise interest in the Society’s scientific projects. He was charged with procuring and figuring out every imaginable kind of experimental instrument, and arranging demonstrations of all kinds at the Society’s meetings. He was a founding member of the new generation of scientific “virtuosi” in seventeenth-century England.

Living a stressful, experiment-based life, and being in addition a frail yet determined hypochondriac, it’s no surprise that Robert Hooke took all the drugs he could get his hands on.

And, as curator of the Royal Society, he was in a position to get his hands on many drugs.

Cannabis

Hooke was good friends with the adventurer Captain Robert Knox, who often traveled to distant lands to acquire strange plants and other curiosities. One such curiosity, brought back to London in 1689, was a quantity of “bangue,” or marijuana. In Hooke’s diary entry from October 24, 1689, he describes it as a “wood spongy like a rush. beset with thornes 2 inch long & sharp like furs…” This plant was “accounted very wholsome. though for a time it takes away the memory & understanding.” In December, he gave the Royal Society a lecture on cannabis:

… The Vertues, or Quality thereof, are [in India] very well known; and the Use thereof (tho’ the Effects are very strange, and, at first hearing, frightful enough) is very general and frequent: and the Person, from whom I received it, hath made very many Trials of it, on himself, with very good Effect.

But cannabis, although wonderful, was only rarely available. Hooke tended to prefer opiates for a good night’s sleep.

Coffee

Living around the time of coffee’s original introduction to England, Hooke immediately realized the benefits of the stuff. He spent much of his working life traveling between the many coffee-houses that sprung up around London, conducting the face-to-face business of surveying in the city’s newly caffeinated social network. Although coffee was in those days generally taken black, weak, and made with water from the shit-filled Thames, the people of London soon discovered its potency as a stimulant. Coffee-house and tavern culture constituted one of the great pleasures of urban life. Caffeine may have contributed to Hooke’s worsening problem of insomnia, although a dependency on it was hardly the most taxing of his chemical irregularities.

“Physick”

To combat his bouts of depression, insomnia, severe headaches, and (perhaps most importantly) the side effects of other drugs, Hooke constantly took more and more “physick,” an umbrella term for various kinds of untested medicine. Hooke’s favorites tended to be toxic. In his diaries there are frequent references to ingesting sal ammoniac, “Steel” (solutions of iron with various other ingredients), “tincture of wormwood” (absinthe), “Crocus metallicus”, laudanum, “Syrupe of poppys” and various solutions incorporating mercury. On at least one occasion, he followed a friend’s advice and self-administered an enema. He also experimented with drinking various solvents, in an attempt to dissolve a kidney stone.

This self-medication had a predictably disastrous effect on Hooke’s health, and no doubt contributed to the nasty attitude his Royal Society peers (Newton, Huygens, et. al.) loved to complain about. I bet if you were drinking mercury every night, you’d be grouchy too.

Pushing the Limit

There is always something charming and inspirational about those scientists who push the limits of consciousness in order to discover more about the world. (Hooke, for his part, genuinely thought that purging the body enhanced the mind.) I’m thinking of Carl Sagan’s paean to pot, Richard Feynman in the sensory deprivation tank, and William James on laughing gas. Robert Hooke puts them all to shame with his intensity (as far as we know, none of these men ever gave himself an enema) and early-adopter credentials.

Background information about Hooke and quotes from his diary are from Lisa Jardine, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke. Highly recommended if you want more Hooke!