What Were They Smoking at the Royal Society? Dr. Robert Boyle and Dr. Robert Hooke on Drugs!

what were they smoking at the royal society dr robert boyle and dr robert hooke on drugs

CANNABIS CULTURE – Founding members of the Royal Society, the centuries old institute of science, were experimenting with cannabis and likely magic mushrooms!

The Royal Society, formally known as The President, Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, is a learned society and the United Kingdom’s national Academy of Sciences. Founded on the 28th of November 1660, it was granted a royal charter by King Charles II as “The Royal Society”.

Many of the Royal Society’s founding members were practicing alchemists, Freemasons, and also likely secret Rosicrucians. This was also a time where scientists might find themselves on the pyre of fire beside the heretics, so we can be sure there was a need for secrecy. We know from historical letters that one of the original founders, Robert Boyle, (1627-1691) a noted Freemason, had written numbers of people about his interest in opening an Invisible College, a subject detailed by Frances Yates in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. In one 1647 letter, Boyle certainly deems the Royal Society as the Invisible College: “The best on’t is, that the cornerstone of the invisible or (as they term themselves) the Philosophical College, do now and then honor me with their company … men of so capacious and searching spirits, that school-philosophy is but the lowest region of their knowledge; and yet, though ambitious to lead the way…. [T]hey take the whole body of mankind to their care.” As John Aubrey noted, “In 1662 Mr Robert Boyle recommended Mr. Robert Hooke to be Curator of the experiments of the Royal Society, wherein he did an admirable good work to the commonwealth of learning in recommending the fittest person in the world to them.”

Robert Boyle

Boyle is largely regarded today as the first modern chemist, and therefore one of the founders of modern chemistry, and one of the pioneers of modern experimental scientific method. In a list of scientific projects he included the search for “Potent Drugs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.” As well as making reference to: “Pleasing Dreams and physical Exercises exemplify’d by Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.” The Egyptian Electuary is a likely reference to Egyptian hashish electuaries such as majoon or dawamesk. The reference to the the Fungus mentioned by the French Author” may allude to a reference to an agaric mushroom in a possible entheogenic context recorded in the works of Rabelais,, who as I discuss in Liber 420 refers at least twice to the “good agaric”. Rabelais is also known for his veiled references to cannabis.

The distinction between intoxicating Eastern varieties of cannabis, and the inactive European industrial varieties was first noted by a well known 17th century scientist from the Royal Society, who also clearly identified with the Rosicrucian movement of that day.

“The Latin name indica has been associated with psychoactive Cannabis since 1747, although the British polymath Robert Hooke earlier proposed “Indian hemp.” The locative term indica links the plant with India, which European scholars considered its “natural” habitat. The name persists because in 1783 a french naturalist chose “indica” to name a new species, which he considered “very distinct” from European hemp. The “principle virtue” of Cannabis Indica was “to derange the brain … and give a sort of gaiety.” “Cannabis indica” became a pharmacological term in the nineteenth century and current taxonomy of the psychoactive subspecies and domesticated variety” (Duvall, 2014).

Hooke noted that “Indian hemp” was different from European hemp, based on the accounts of its effects from a sailor who had experimented with it in Sri Lanka. Hooke lamented that seeds from this “Indian hemp grown in England, failed to produce any effect and “hath lost its virtue.”  This led to the understanding of how climate affected resin production.

Hooke received his sample of cannabis from his life long friend, Robert Knox (1642-1720), a Sea captain, trader, and writer employed by the East India Company. Richard Boyle has noted of Knox’s various ‘discoveries’ in the East:

To judge from the written record, it was during initial British interaction with the Subcontinent in the seventeenth century that cannabis, or rather bhang in this cultural context, was encountered. Sailors, soldiers and merchants no doubt witnessed the sacred use of bhang; smoked by swamis in a chillum, or drunk as thandai – prepared with almonds, spices, milk and sugar – during Holi. In addition they no doubt witnessed recreational use – a handful of enthusiasts inhaling from a hookah, or the drinking of a simple beverage. Perhaps they also witnessed its therapeutic use in curing fever, dysentery, gonorrhea, and even lisping….

The initial description in English of recreational use is from Thomas Bowrey’s A Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal 1669 to 1679 (1905). The incident occurred in Bengal in the 1670s and involved Bowrey, a merchant seaman, and a handful of his kind. Bowrey’s historic account amusingly describes the diverse effects of bhang:

“It Operates according to the thoughts or fancy of the Party that drinketh thereof, in Such manner that if he be merry at that instant, he Shall Continue So with Exceeding great laughter, rather overmerry than Otherways, laughing heartily at Everything they discern; and, on the Contrary, if it be taken in a fearful or Melancholy posture, he Shall keep great lamentation and Seem to be in great anguish of Spirit.

“To try practice, we would need drink Every man his pint of Bangha, purchased at the Bazar for the Value of 6d English. We drank Each man his proportion, and made fast all doors and Windows, that none of us might run out into the Street, or any person come in to behold any of our humours thereby to laugh at us.

“It soon took its Operation Upon us, but merrily, Save upon two of our Number. One of them Sat down Upon the floor, and wept bitterly all the Afternoon; the Other terrified with fear did run his head into a great Moryavan Jaree [earthenware pot], and continued in that Posture four hours or more; some lay upon the Carpets complimenting each other in high terms, each fancying himself an Emperor. One was quarrelsome and fought with the wooden Pillars of the Porch, until he had little Skin upon his knuckles. Myself and one more Sat sweating for the Space of three hours in Exceeding Measure.”

The first documented pharmaceutical use of the drug by Britons also took place in the 1670s, but this time in Ceylon. In An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681), Robert Knox relates how between 1673 and 1679 he and a shipmate made clandestine journeys towards the Dutch-held northwest coast in a bid to escape.

“We were fain to drink of Ponds of Rain water, wherein the Cattel lie and tumble, which would be so thick and muddy, that the very filth would hang in our Beards when we drank. By which means when we first used those parts we used often to be sick of violent Fevors and Agues.

“We learned an Antidote and Counter-Poyson against the filthy venomous water, which so operated by the blessings of God, that after the use thereof we had no more Sickness. It is only a dry leaf; they call it in Portuguez banga, beaten to Powder with some of the Countrey Jaggory: and this we eat Morning and Evening upon an empty stomach. It intoxicates the Brain, and makes one giddy, without any other operation either by Stool or Vomit.”

Knox eventually escaped and returned to London in 1680. His reintegration with English society began when his brother James took him to some of London’s fashionable coffee shops. James Knox, a talented limner (painter of miniatures), was an acquaintance of eminent persons such as Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, and Christopher Wren, who congregated at Garraway’s and Jonathan’s. Thus Knox was brought to the notice of London’s intelligentsia. By the time An Historical Relation of Ceylon was published the story of his confinement and escape had spread across the metropolis, which accounted in part for the book’s success.

Knox’s introduction to Robert Hooke was significant in several ways. It led to Hooke giving Knox invaluable assistance in the editing and publication of the book. It marked the beginning of a friendship that endured until the death of the latter twenty-three years later. (Indeed, when Hooke was dying it was Knox, and only Knox, he called to his bedside.) It also enabled Hooke, then Secretary to the Royal Society, to gather scientific and other information from Knox from his sojourn in Ceylon, and subsequently his voyages as an East India Company captain. For instance, take this entry from Hooke’s diary reproduced in RT Gunther’s Early Science in Oxford, Vol. 10. (1935): “Tu 24 [Sept 1689] Received from Capn Knox 2 books: one in Arabic, another in Malabaric [Malayalam] characters . . . good discourse on Mauricius [Mauritius], the Cape, Bombay, etc.”

A notorious spendthrift, Hooke made notes in his diary of the money he spent at coffee houses on entertaining others. There are copious notes over the years that read, “Brought Chocolate for Knox, 4d”, “Capt Knox. Choc: 6d,” etc. Almost a decade after Knox’s return from Ceylon there are three entries of coffee shop meetings within a fortnight in which bhang is mentioned. The first two record the effects of the drug as related by Knox, while the third notes that Knox gave him leaves and seeds:

“Sat [26 Oct 1689] At Jon. Cap. Knox choc. ganges strange intoxicating herb like hemp, takes away understanding and memory, for a time frequently used in India with benefit.”

“Tu. 5 Nov: 1689. Capt Knox told me the intoxicating leaf and seed, by the Moors called Ganges, in Portug. Banga; in Chingales [Sinhalese] Consa: ‘tis accounted wholesome, though for a time it takes away the memory and understanding.”
“Thu 7 [Nov 1689] from Cap. Knox. Konsa leafe and seed”

Six weeks later, on December 18, 1689, Hooke employed Knox’s information in a revolutionary lecture to the fellows of the Royal Society that described the social, psychiatric and therapeutic uses of bhang. Fortunately, his notes for “An Account of the Plant, call’d Bangue” were found posthumously and published in Philosophical Experiments and Observations of the late Eminent Dr Robert Hooke (1726). (Boyle, 2013)

Robert Hooke

Hooke provides us with the first direct references to cannabis’ psychoactive properties that I could find from a figure associated with the Rosicrucians. We know of Hooke’s interest in the Rosicrucians through surviving letters between him and the folklorist, antiquarian, archaeologist and occultist, John Aubrey (1626-1697). “In 1676 Hooke and Aubrey apparently thought of founding an alchemical society: ‘July 14. with Mr. Aubery to whom I spoke of Rosicrucian club’” (‘Espinasse, 1956). Apparently Aubrey was thought to have some connections to this secret society. A Dr. George Garden wrote Aubrey noting indications of Rosicrucian knowledge in his book of “hermetick philosophie… let me know if there be anie person in England that goes under that name…” Although a number of Aubrey’s work were published posthumously, the only works that were printed during his own lifetime were occult related. His Miscellanies (1696; reprinted with additions in 1721), were a collection of chapters on “hermetick philosophy” that included tracts on “Prophesies,” “Transportation in the Air,” “Converse with Angels and Spirits,” “Second-Sighted Persons,” etc.

An interest in psychoactive substances and the magical documents of Dr. John Dee were also subjects the two friends shared. In a memorandum to a reference to hemp used in English Folk magic, Aubrey shows his awareness of its effects, comparing them to other drugs, and noting where such substances could be purchased. “Green Hemp-leaves will make one to be in the same condition with Dotroa [Datura?].So Opium; and Lachissa [Hashish] which is made of green Hempe. From Mr. Wylde Clarke, merchant and Factor at Sancto Crux in Barbarie.”

Hooke was one of the most respected minds of his day, an architect, scientist and philosopher, he is credited with measuring London, and remembered for his pioneering work with microscopes and pendulum clocks

Indicating the Royal Society’s shared interest in cannabis, Dr Robert Hooke gave two lectures on the effects of the herb to the fellows of the Royal Society, at the end of 1689 and in the beginning of 1670.

“An Account of the plant called Bangue”

“It is a certain plant which grows very common in India, and the Vertues or Quality thereof, are there 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 receiv’d it, hath made very many Trials of it, on himself, with very good Effect. ‘Tis call’d, by the Moors, Gange; by the Chingalese Comsa; and by the Portugals, Bangue. The Dose of it is about as much as may fill a common Tobacco-Pipe, the Leaves and Seeds being dried first, and pretty finely powdered. This Powder being chewed and swallowed, or washed down, by a small Cup of Water, doth, in a short Time, quite take away the Memory and Understanding; so that the Patient understands not, nor remembereth any Thing that he seeth, heareth, or doth, in that Extasie, but becomes, as it were, a mere Natural, being unable to speak a Word of Sense; yet is he very merry, and laughs, and sings, and speaks Words without Coherence, not knowing what he saith or doth; yet is he not giddy, or drunk, but walks and dances and sheweth many odd Tricks; after a little Time he falls asleep, and sleepeth very soundly and quietly; and when he wakes he finds himself mightily refresh’d, and exceeding hungry. And that which troubled his Stomach, or Head, before he took it, is perfectly carried off without leaving any ill Symptom, as Giddiness, Pain in the Head or Stomach, or Defect of Memory of any Thing (besides of what happened) during the Time of its Operation. And he assures me, that he hath often taken it, when he has found himself out of Order, either by drinking bad Water, or eating some Things which had not agreed with him. He saith, moreover, that ’tis commonly made Use of, by the Heathen Priests, or rambling Mendicant Heathen Friars, who will many of the meet together, and every of them dose themselves with this Medicine, and then ramble several Ways, talking they know not what, pretending after that , they were inspired. The Plant is so like Hemp, in all its Parts, both Seed, Leaves, Stalk, and Flower that it may be said to be only Indian Hemp. Here are divers of the Seeds, which I intent to try this Spring, to see if the Plant can be here produced, and to examine, if it can be raised, whether it will have the same Vertues. Several Trials have been lately made with some of this, which I here produce, but it hath lost its Vertue, producing none of the Effects before-mentioned…

“…this I have here produced, is so well known and experimented by Thousands; and the Person that brought it has so often experimented it himself that there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be Laughter. It may therefore, if it can be produced, possibly prove as considerable a Medicine in Drugs, as any that is brought from the Indies; and may possibly be of considerable use for Lunaticks, or for other Distempers of the Head and Stomach, for that it seemeth to put a Man into a Dream, whilst yet he seems to be awake, but at last ends in profound Sleep, which rectifies all; whereas Lunaticks are much in the same Estate, but cannot obtain that, which should, and in all Probablity would, cure them, and that is a profound and quiet Sleep” (Hooke, 1689).

From Hooke’s description, there are unnamed others who were experimenting with the substance at the time, in the “thousands.” This is no small number and, considering who Hooke’s friends and colleagues were, and indication of who was using it in this time and place. As he was a close friend of Elias Ashmole, a Freemason, Rosicrucian and fellow member of the Royal Society, who will be as I discuss in Liber 420, was known to have been familiar with the drug-infused magic of Grimoires like The Picatrix, and Sepher Raziel: Liber Salmomonis, it only seems to likely that Hooke would have known of this occult use as well. Hooke also wrote about opium in relation to “Narcotic Steams,” noting that it can cause sleep and in too large a dose death. Hooke is said to have “kept himself going with liberal doses of cannabis and poppy water (laudanum)” lamenting in a diary note in the midst of a bout of insomnia, “took Dr. Goddard’s syrupe of poppy, slept not” ( Jardine, 2003). Besides the use of drugs, Hooke may have held some sort of occult concept of sex, and kept track of his orgasms, using the symbol of Pisces in his diaries to identify when he had sex with one of his servants.

Hooke, who like many of the fellows of the Royal Society, actively pursued an interest in alchemy, also had a soft spot for the earlier magician and scientist Dr. John Dee, and had “tried to rescue his reputation by arguing that the Spiritual Diaries [records of his scrying]were a ‘concealed history of art and nature’ relating to contemporary events” (Yates, 1972). Hooke gave a lecture at the Royal Society on mirror scrying, that mentioned Dee, Trithemius and others. This was an interest that other members of the Royal Society apparently shared.

“The third herbe is Canabus [cannabis]& it is long in shafte & clothes be made of it. The vertue of the Juse [juice]of it is to anoynt thee with it & with the juse of arthemesy & ordyne thee before a mirrour of stele [steel]& clepe thou spiritts & thou shallt see them & thou shalt haue might of binding & of loosing deuills [devils]& other things.” (Sepher Raziel, 1564).
“Anoint thee with the Joice of Canabus & the Joice of Archangell & before a mirrour of steele call spirits, & thoue shalt see them & have power to binde & to loose them” (Book of Oberon, 1577-1583)

Elias Ashmole

Royal Society member Elias Ashmole, who was deeply interested in Dr. Dee and collected many of his works, was familiar with the cannabis magic of Sepher Raziel as his handwriting appears on a surviving manuscript copy of it, as well as in a copy of the Picatrix, which contains its own recipe for cannabis suffumigation.  One wonders if a desire to give a scientific understanding to these magical effects might be seen in Robert Boyle’s reference to “Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination” and Robert Hooke’s extensive experiments with cannabis?

For more check out Liber 420 

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