Of Women in Pharmacology

Cleopatra: A Life. Stacy Schiff. New York: Little, Brown and Co; 2010. 369 pages. $29.99. ISBN: 9780316001922

Her name was powerfully resonant, the more so for her association with the pharmacologically inclined, miracle-working Isis.

—Schiff, p138

Finally, the historiography of Cleopatra has taken an important step in the analysis of a woman who, through centuries of literature and decades of cinematography, had often been trivialized as little more than a scheming seductress, however successful in this respect, of important men. Currently a bestseller on the New York Times list of hardback nonfiction, Stacy Schiff’s biography finally casts Cleopatra in her rightful historical role: a woman of great curiosity and intellect, with an insatiable interest in pharmacology. Schiff describes Cleopatra as a “spirited, disciplined, resourceful” experimentalist who valued whole-animal studies. The account of Cleopatra’s “daily” experiments is compelling, with Schiff relying on the records of Plutarch, which are among the earliest surviving documents of Cleopatra’s research, written a mere century after the fact.

To one end or another she made a collection of these [deadly poisons], testing them on prisoners and on venomous animals to determine which toxin yielded the most expeditious, least painful results.

One of Schiff’s major themes is her assertion that the attitudes and biases of Plutarch and the other early historians—all men—must be approached with due care, as Cleopatra was not always presented objectively in the early accounts. And indeed, Schiff does an excellent job of engaging the reader in consideration of how historiographies are constructed by relying on available recordings, accommodating conflicting accounts, and making reasonable attempts to fill in the holes. Schiff readily acknowledges her own limitations in coming to grips with the retelling of historical events, and in this way, her authoritative use of quotations from Plutarch, Dio, Cicero, Josephus, and many others is free of condescension. Schiff is an engaging author, if somewhat florid at times—especially when the historical record becomes hazy. (I mean, really: “And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.”) But Schiff’s strength as a writer is undeniable; she consistently constructs her narrative with clarity and with regard for her audience.

Admittedly, Schiff’s repeated acknowledgment that biographies can be written from a great number of perspectives and biases—literary, political, and even mercantile—may be troubling to the scientist, trained to adhere to objective measurement and avoid speculation or personal interest. And as Schiff herself admits, amid a round of speculation regarding the motivations of the historical players, “We are ultimately left chasing our tails.” But the value of creativity, along with multiple perspectives, is also well-known to the scientist, and many readers, regardless of training, will enjoy the freedom and wonder that accompanies the epic story of Cleopatra, a Life.

Which brings me back to the much-needed recognition that Schiff brings to Cleopatra and the world of pharmacology that existed in the first century BCE, over one hundred years before the birth of Galen. Schiff brings this world, which many non-scientists or technophobes might otherwise presume to possess a dry emotional atmosphere, to life, and many modern researchers will undoubtedly recognize, either in themselves or their colleagues, the perseverance and passion that Cleopatra shows for pharmacology. Even after she and Mark Antony have been taken prisoner by the Romans, Cleopatra’s research comes first, at least in Schiff’s account. Despite unimaginable pressures being place on Cleopatra to betray Antony, to protect her children and her legacy, and to cooperate with the conquering Romans,

[s]he continued with her poison experiments, though probably not with a cobra, as Plutarch asserts. She was in search of a toxin that subtly, painlessly overwhelmed the senses. Its victim should submit to what appeared to be a profound sleep. Much of this was common knowledge to a Hellenistic sovereign, reliably familiar with her toxins and antidotes, and well aware that a cobra bite did not answer to that description.

Here and throughout the book, Schiff is careful also to establish the Hellenistic ancestry of Cleopatra and correct the popular notion that the Ptolemies were ethnically Egyptian. One of Cleopatra’s many intellectual strengths was her linguistic acumen—she could, unlike any of her predecessors, converse directly with her Egyptian subjects. But by lineage, tradition, and education, Cleopatra was Greek. Under Cleopatra, Egypt flourished, and Schiff credits Cleopatra for much of this prosperity. She won the favor and support of her Egyptian subjects through her linguistic skills—she spoke nine languages fluently—and through her appreciation and promotion of diverse societal customs and cult practices, frequently identifying herself with the “pharmacologically inclined” goddess Isis. Cleopatra is further portrayed as fiscally astute and very much a hands-on administrator of laws and taxes. She was by far the wealthiest ruler of her time, and she understood her strengths and used her wealth to brilliant political advantage.


The ancient world that Schiff recreates—Alexandria, in particular—is vivid and fascinating, despite her occasional indulgence in purple prose. (At times, literally purple: Alexandria is “a city of cool raspberry dawns and pearly late afternoons, with the hustle of heterodoxy and the aroma of opportunity thick in the air.”) By contrast, Rome is provincial, and although a split appears imminent between what will be the new world and what will become the old world, the portioning of east and west in the new order is not, until the very end of Cleopatra’s reign, at all clear. Alexandrians were remarkably adroit, employing Greek technological developments and cleverly copying—and improving—the modern inventions of the Romans. “A center of mechanical marvels, Alexandria boasted automatic doors and hydraulic lifts, hidden treadmills and coin-operated machines.” Schiff seems to argue in general that Alexandrian culture was largely derivative, but in this regard she notes, as if to underscore the true subject of her work, “Medicine and pharmacology represented the sole exceptions.”

The Cleopatra that Schiff gives us is not the physical beauty that Hollywood has portrayed—and the coins that bear Cleopatra’s profile indeed fail to suggest any resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor. It is to Schiff’s great credit that the Cleopatra of her book is nevertheless captivating, intelligent, attractive, and respectable. This Cleopatra is powerful not because of her gender, and she is powerful not in spite of her gender. (Alas, her power cannot even be ascribed to her profession in pharmacology, although early historians, notably Josephus, claimed that her hold on Mark Antony was drug-induced.) For this Cleopatra, gender and sexuality play no greater a role than they would for any other supreme ruler.

Schiff herself offers effective, however familiar, feminist critiques of the male historians, playwrights, and culture that have traditionally borne Cleopatra’s seductress reputation. Schiff’s Cleopatra appears time after time in seemingly no-win situations, only to surmount conditions that would have broken, and in fact did break, other (i.e., male) sovereigns. Indeed, the eminently virile Mark Antony seems to dissolve under the weight of the besieging Romans under Octavian, whereas Cleopatra machinates alternative solutions to her situation, at one point resolving to remove her navy from the Mediterranean and transport an entire fleet over land and into the Red Sea. She builds her own mausoleum and she commands her own destiny—to the maximum degree possible.

But again, the historiography of Cleopatra, as the Pulitzer-winning Schiff herself stresses, often represents matters of opinion and bias. And it is easy to be led astray. Which is precisely why we are so fortunate, finally, to be able to recognize Cleopatra for her efforts in pharmacology, regardless of the obscurities of political intrigue and ruthlessness that may have marked her era.

Harry Smith, PhD, is Editor of Molecular Interventions.

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