Zachary Dorner is an advanced doctoral candidate in Brown’s history department where he studies early modern British history. He just returned from a year in London where he conducted dissertation research as a Mellon Dissertation Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research. Zack has presented his work in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He also has an article forthcoming in The William and Mary Quarterly in 2015.
What are you working on for your dissertation? How much has the project changed from what you had initially envisioned when you wrote your prospectus?
My project traces the maturation and extension of the British pharmaceutical trade in the eighteenth century. The pharmaceutical trade in Britain went from a collection of small shops in the seventeenth century to a coherent global manufacturing and export sector by the close of the eighteenth. I see the pharmaceutical sector as a means to talk about the co-existence of mercantilist and capitalist practices during the transition to a market society amidst the expansion of overseas colonization. From the outset, I sought to better understand the practical intersections of science and commerce during a period of changing political economy in Britain. This much has not changed; I still rely upon many of the same collections I outlined in my prospectus—primarily firm records (including the East India Company), private correspondence, insurance policies, and customs data. Over the course of reading and research, however, my relative emphasis on the scientific and medical history versus the economic history has shifted. Increasingly I am thinking about economic life as the first layer of analysis, rather than leading with science or medicine as the driver of change in the sector, though certainly they play roles too. This shift is due in large part to the rich data I found in the archives and a desire to engage more with quantitative methods—more on that next.
What skills did you come into the project with and what did you have to hone once you got deeper into the research?
I came into the project with reading knowledge of French and basic proficiencies in Excel and statistics. As my project began to shift toward economic analysis, these skills proved insufficient to complete the project as I came to envision it. I found that in order to really interrogate the finances of early modern firms I needed to improve my paleography and numeracy. I worked on my ability to identify, compare, and convert eighteenth-century weights, measures, and values. Now I feel just as at home in a ledger as in a letter book. Getting more comfortable at evaluating early modern accounting techniques has allowed me to generate datasets from a variety of collections. I also needed to brush up on my statistics and Excel skills to then actually interpret this data. Attending the History of Capitalism Summer Camp at Cornell University during the summer of 2013 refreshed my ability to deploy statistics in my analyses and encouraged me to think critically about quantitative sources. I credit the camp and my engagement with scholars working within the new history of capitalism with my ability to work with the datasets that form an essential pillar of my project. All of this enabled the shift I mentioned earlier toward a more economically oriented project.
Your research looks at the connections between capitalism and science through the lens of the pharmaceutical trade in the eighteenth-century British empire. How much of a role did state intervention play in promoting innovation in the pharmaceutical trade?
Ok, this question hews pretty close to the debate surrounding the “the Rise of the West,” but I’ll attempt an answer here. The British drug and pharmaceutical trade had an ambivalent history with the state during the eighteenth century. On the one hand, duties assessed on imported drugs do not seem to have hindered the expansion of pharmaceutical exports from London in the eighteenth century. On the other hand, the customs system caused considerable worry for participants in the trade and threatened to constrain profits. Pharmaceutical manufacturers in London responded by proposing new systems of duties, and when their proposals failed they experimented with practices of manufacturing chemicals, managing supply chains, and raising capital for their firms. I am not sure I would call these developments innovations, but they were shifts in business strategy in reaction to constraints placed upon the trade. Where the state did play a contributing role was through state-sponsored colonization and military contracts, which boosted pharmaceutical exports. In my view, the drug and pharmaceutical trade did not thrive due to or in spite of state regulation, but rather its participants adapted to the regulatory regimes and maintained a thriving export trade.
You were selected as a Mellon Dissertation Fellow for the Institute of Historical Research in London for the 2013-2014 academic year. In addition to your research, what else did your fellowship entail? Did you find that it was easy or difficult to build connections with scholars based in London?
Thanks to the IHR’s generous fellowship program I was able to spend a full year in London. The IHR provided material resources, but also sponsored a visa that enabled me to spend the year in the UK. With the extended time in London, I explored my topic at much greater depth and with much greater flexibility for chasing down tangents than I would have been able otherwise. At the IHR all of the Junior Fellows were invited to participate in weekly seminars designed to share everyone’s work during the autumn. These meetings provided an easy atmosphere to get acquainted with one another and become familiar with the collective work being done at the IHR. Additionally, the IHR hosts an impressive slate of seminars where I managed to meet a number of scholars who have been helpful to my work. I would also be remiss not to mention my life in London outside of research. First and foremost, I joined an ultimate frisbee team, which was great for staying active, getting outside, and meeting new people. I also tried to take advantage of the cultural vibrancy of the city by visiting museums (the Malevich exhibit at Tate Modern was a favorite), attending concerts, and exploring the countryside. London is a big, but welcoming, city, and I was fortunate to have forged some lasting connections during my time there.
Besides your dissertation, what other projects do you have on the horizon?
Aside from continuing with the current project, I have also been tossing around the idea of exploring non-fiat money that the EIC experimented with in South Asia. I found some interesting references to this while in London and look forward to following up on my next research trip. Money was (and still is) a technology that could be strategically employed to facilitate transactions and to attack trading rivals. The question of whether certain forms of money function as protocols or as currencies, in my eyes, lies at the heart of today’s debates surrounding the rise of and rivalries between cryptocurrencies. Closer on the horizon is a month in residence at the Library Company of Philadelphia in 2015 to examine some of the transatlantic Quaker connections of the British pharmaceutical trade.