Gerke, Barbara. Taming the Poisonous: Mercury, Toxicity, and Safety in Tibetan Medical Practice. Heidelberg Studies on Transculturality, Vol. 7. Heidelberg University Publishing.

Click here for the FREE OPEN ACCESS pdf version of the book.

This rich ethnographic and socio-historical account uncovers how toxicity and safety are expressed transculturally in a globalizing world. For the first time, it unpacks the “pharmaceutical nexus” of mercury in Tibetan medicine (Sowa Rigpa) where, since the thirteenth century, it has mainly been used in the form of tsotel. Tsotel, an organometallic mercury sulfide compound, is added in small amounts to specific medicines to enhance the potency of other ingredients. In concordance with tantric Buddhist ideas, Tibetan medical practitioners confront and tame poisonous substances, and instead of avoiding or expelling them, transform them into potent medicines and elixirs.
Recently, the UN Environment Programme’s global ban on mercury, the Minamata Convention, has sparked debates on the use of mercury in Asian medicines. As Asian medical traditions increasingly intersect with biomedical science and technology, what is at stake when Tibetan medical practitioners in India and Nepal, researchers, and regulators negotiate mercury’s toxicity and safety? Who determines what is “toxic” and what is “safe,” and how? What does this mean for the future of traditional Asian medical and pharmaceutical practices?

Special issues


Craig, Sienna, Barbara Gerke and Jan M. A. van der Valk (Hot Spots editors) . “Responding to an Unfolding Pandemic: Asian Medicines and Covid-19.” Hot Spots, Fieldsights. June 23.

Co-edited 18 essays, and authored and co-authored the following contributions:

Craig, Sienna R., Barbara Gerke, and Jan M. A. van der Valk. 2020. “Asian Medicines and Covid-19: An Introduction.” Hot Spots, Fieldsights, June 23.

Gerke, Barbara. 2020. “Sowa Rigpa in Lockdown: On the Potency and Politics of Prevention.” Hot Spots, Fieldsights, June 23.

Arya, Pasang Yonten, and Jan M. A. van der Valk. 2020. “A Conversation on the Causes of Covid-19 with a Senior Tibetan Doctor Living in Lockdown in Milan.” Hot Spots, Fieldsights, June 23.


Gerke, Barbara and Jan M. A. van der Valk (guest editors). Peer-reviewed special issue: “Materiality, Efficacy, and the Politics of Potent Substances across Asia.” HIMALAYA, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies. Publication date: July 2019.

Co-edited nine articles, and authored and co-authored the following contributions:

Gerke, Barbara and Jan M. A. van der Valk. “Introduction: Approaching Potent Substances in Medicine and Ritual across Asia.” HIMALAYA 39 (1): 69-73.

van der Valk, Jan M. A. “Garuda 5 (khyung lnga): Ecologies of Potency and the Poison-Medicine Spectrum of Sowa Rigpa’s Renowned ‘Black Aconite’ Formula.” HIMALAYA 39 (1): 111-128.

Schwabl, Herbert and Jan M. A. van der Valk. “Challenging the Biomedical Notion of ‘Active Substance’: The Botanical Plasticity of Tibetan Medical Formulas.” HIMALAYA 39 (1): 208-218.

Tidwell, Tawni and James Nettles. “Conceptions of Potency, Purity, and Synergy-by Design: Toward Developing a Sowa Rigpa Medical Theory-based Approach to Pharmaceutical Research.” HIMALAYA 39 (1): 129-149.

Gerke, Barbara. “The Potency of Tradition: Turquoise, Coral, and Pearl in Sowa Rigpa.” HIMALAYA 39 (1): 91-110.

Triplett, Katja, Barbara Gerke and Jan M. A. van der Valk. Gallery: “Potent Substances in a Thirteenth Century Japanese Scroll Painting.” HIMALAYA 39 (1).

Because of the COVID pandemic, this project was put on hold from July 2020 to March 2022. It has continued since April 2022.

Journal articles


Gerke, Barbara (forthcoming). “Visual Metaphors of Contagion: Poisons and Antidotes in Tibetan Medical Paintings of the Seventeenth Century.” Curare: Journal of Medical Anthropology 46 (2). Thematic focus “Visual Expressions of Health, Illness & Healing,” edited by Katharina Sabernig.


Gerke, Barbara. “Thinking through complex webs of potency. Early Tibetan medical responses to the emerging coronavirus epidemic: Notes from a field visit to Dharamsala, India.” Medical Anthropology Theory 7 (1): 188-209.

Craig, Sienna R., Barbara Gerke, and Victoria Sheldon. 2019. “Sowa Rigpa Humanitarianism: Local Logics of Care within a Global Politics of Compassion.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 34 (2): 174-191.

Dhondrup, Wüntrang, Dungkar Tso, Tawni Tidwell, Rigdzin Wangyal, Gönpo Dhondrup, Zixuan Liu, Tashi Dolma, Yi Zhang. forthcoming. ”Dataset of Illness Classifications in Sowa Rigpa: Compilations from the Oral Instructions Treatise of the Tibetan Medical Classic (Rgyud bzhi).” Data-in-Brief 29: 105321.

Dhondrup, Wüntrang, Tawni Tidwell, Wencheng, Xiaobo Wang, Dungkar Tso, Gönpo Dhondrup, Qingfang Luo, Choknyi Wangmo, Tsering Kyi, Yongguo Liu, Xianli Meng, Yi Zhang. “Tibetan Medical Informatics: An Emerging Field in Sowa Rigpa Pharmacological & Clinical Research.”Journal of Ethnopharmacology 250: 112481.


Gerke, Barbara. “The Buddhist-Medical Interface in Tibet: Black Pill Traditions in Transformation.” Religions 10 (4): 282.


Gerke, Barbara. “On Trogawa Rinpoche’s Journeys to Ladakh (1992-2004).” Chagpori Tibetan Medical Institute Silver Jubilee Souvenir 2018: 61-63.

Gerke, Barbara. “Men-Tsee-Khang Celebrations on its 100th Anniversary. A report from Dharamsala.” Tibet Journal 43 (1): 161-167.

Book chapters


Singh, Stuti and Barbara Gerke (under review). “Menjor Tools and the Artisanal Epistemology of Making Sowa Rigpa Medicines in Spiti.” Tibetan Materialities. Edited by Emma Martin, Trine Brox, and Diana Lange. Heidelberg: Heidelberg University Publishing.

Surbhi, Mridul and Jan M. A. van der Valk (under review). “Ritualised meshworks in landscape and pharmacy: Harvest and production alongside amchi from Spiti and Kinnaur.” Tibetan Materialities. Edited by Emma Martin, Trine Brox, and Diana Lange. Heidelberg: Heidelberg University Publishing.


Gerke, Barbara. “Allegiance to whose community? Effects of Men-Tsee-Khang policies on the role and identity of amchi in the Darjeeling Hills.” Healing at the Periphery: Ethnographies of Tibetan Medicine in India. Edited by Stephan Kloos and Laurent Pordié. Durham: Duke University Press, 171-195.

van der Valk, Jan M. A. “’Sourcery’: Losing Track of Tibetan Medicinal Plants between Commerce and Conservation in Northern India”. Asian Medical Industries: Contemporary Perspectives on Traditional Pharmaceuticals. Edited by Stephan Kloos and Calum Blaikie. Needham Research Institute Series. Abingdon: Routledge, 227-252.


Gerke, Barbara. “Material Presentations and Cultural Drug Translations of Contemporary Tibetan Precious Pills.” In Knowledge and Context in the Tibetan Medical Tradition. PIATS 2016: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Fourteenth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Bergen, 2016, edited by William McGrath. Leiden: Brill, 337-367.



21 June
Gerke, Barbara and Jan van der Valk.
“Sowa Rigpa Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Material Manifestations of Protection and Treatment.” Tibetan & Himalayan Studies Lecture Series, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.


4 November
Collaborative FWF project presentation: “Potent Substances in Sowa Rigpa and Buddhist Rituals.” ISTB, University of Vienna.

Barbara Gerke, ISTB, University of Vienna (Project PI)
Jan van der Valk, ISTB, University of Vienna (Project Postdoc)
Tawni Tidwell, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Center for Healthy Minds, University of Madison, Wisconsin & Numata Guest Professor at ISTB during the winter semester of 2022 (Project Research Associate)
Calum Blaikie, Austrian Academy of Sciences, PI of the FWF-project Integrating Traditional Medicine: Sowa Rigpa and the State in India (Project Research Associate)

You can view the lecture recording here.

23 May
Gerke, Barbara. “Precious and Potent: Tibetan Medical Pill Traditions.” Guest Lecture for the Society of History of Pharmacology, London. Available on YouTube:

16 May
Gerke, Barbara. ” Knowing and Doing: Artisanship in Sowa Rigpa Medicine Making.” Guest Lecture during the Proseminar on Tibetan Medicine organized by Dr. Florian Ploberger, University of Vienna.


1 December
van der Valk, Jan. “Tibetan Medicine and Covid-19 in the Anthropocene: Diagnosing the Spiritual Revenge of Nature.” Heroes and Villains in the Anthropocene virtual seminar series, Brunel University, London.


14 January
van der Valk, Jan. “Modern Tibetan Medical Education and the Widening Doctor-Pharmacist Divide in Nepal: What’s the problem?” Campus Hybernská, Charles University, Prague.


21 November
Gerke, Barbara. “Potency, Poison Cultures, and the Politics of Toxicity: Processing Mercury in Asian Medicines.” Department of Anthropology, University of Roehampton, London.

14 November
Gerke, Barbara. “Artisanship and ‘Potency-in-Becoming’: Making Medicines in Sowa Rigpa,” Oriental Institute, University of Oxford.

21 October
Gerke, Barbara. Lecture (during the seminar Series on Tibetan Medicine by Florian Ploberger): “What makes a substance potent? Senses, Substances, and the Art of Tibetan Pharmacology” Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (ISTB), Vienna.

26 June
Gentry, James. Invited ISTB guest lecture (co-organised by Barbara Gerke): “Tracing Networks of Efficacy: The Diverse Agencies of Objects in Tibetan Buddhist Material Culture.” Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (ISTB), Vienna.

5 April
Tidwell, Tawni. ISTB guest lecture: “Lineage, Renaissance, and Industry: Contemporary Tibetan Medicine in Eastern Tibet.” Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (ISTB), Vienna.

31 January
Gerke, Barbara and Jan van der Valk. ISA Regional guest lecture: “‘Potency-in-Becoming’: Artisanship among amchi practitioners making Sowa Rigpa medicines in Ladakh.” Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA), Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna.

18 January
Gerke, Barbara. “Biographies of Tibetan Precious Pills: A Project Exhibition at ISTB” Lecture and opening of the Lise-Meitner Project exhibition on Tibetan Precious Pills at the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (ISTB), Vienna.

“Biographies of Tibetan Precious Pills”: A Project Exhibition at ISTB


21 December
Gerke, Barbara. Lecture for medical students and Sowa Rigpa physicians: “On the History, Potency and Processing of Tibetan Precious Pills.” Chagpori Tibetan Medical Institute, Salugara, West Bengal, India.

Book reviews


Gerke, Barbara. Review of “Mixing Medicines: Ecologies of Care in Buddhist Siberia by Tatiana Chudakova. New York: Fordham University Press, 2021.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 37 (2): 166-168.


Gerke, Barbara. Review of “C. Pierce Salguero, (2022) A Global History of Buddhism and Medicine. New York: Columbia University Press.” Asian Medicine 17 (2): 328-330.


van der Valk, Jan M. A.Knowledge and Context in Tibetan Medicine. Edited by William A. McGrath. Leiden: Brill, 2019. xx, 372 pp. ISBN: 9789004404441 (cloth)” The Journal of Asian Studies 80 (2): 464-466.


van der Valk, Jan M. A. “Medicine and Memory in Tibet: Amchi Physicians in an Age of Reform. Theresia Hofer, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018, 286 pp.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 33 (2).

Gerke, Barbara. “Review of Theresia Hofer: Medicine and Memory in Tibet.” Asian Ethnology.


Gerke, Barbara. “The Patient Multiple: An Ethnography of Healthcare and Decision Making in Bhutan.” by Jonathan Taee, 2017. Anthropos 113: 761-762.

Public outreach


Pasang Yonten Arya, Jan M. A. van der Valk, and Barbara Gerke. “Tashi Yangphel Tashigang.” Treasury of Lives: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia, and the Himalaya.


14 August
Craig, Sienna, Barbara Gerke and Jan M. A. van der Valk. Blogpost: “Asian Medicines, COVID-19 and the Politics of Science: An Unpublished Letter to the Editor of Nature“. Advocacy Letters Series, Somatosphere.

16 February
van der Valk, Jan. Student lecture: “Healthy Mind, Happy Mind: Key Insights from Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism”. The InnBetween (Student Chaplaincy), Maastricht University, The Netherlands.


13 November
van der Valk, Jan. Lecture at Tibetan Buddhist institute (in Dutch): “The Link between Tibetan medicine and Buddhism: A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body”. Stichting Tibetaans Boeddhisme Limburg, Maastricht, The Netherlands.

11 April
van der Valk, Jan. Lecture for the general public (in Dutch): “Tibetan Medicine, Vitality and Rejuvenation,” Yogapraktijk Leef, Kerkrade, The Netherlands.

10 January
Gerke, Barbara. Lecture for hospice workers (in German): “Dying at the Ganges: Hospices in Varanasi, India”. Caritas Socialis, Vienna.


van der Valk, Jan. Lecture series for the general public on the theme “Medicinal Plants between East and West” (in Dutch): “Inside the Tibetan Apothecary…A Totally Different Perspective on Medicines” (23/10/2018), “Poison or Antidote? The Use of Poisonous Plants in Asian Medicine” (6/11/2018), “A hot trade: Eastern Herbs and Spices in Europe” (20/11/2018). Apothecary Museum, Maaseik, Belgium.

4 October
Gerke, Barbara. Student lecture: “Starting and running an NGO in India in my Twenties.” Naropa Fellowship Campus, Hemis, Ladakh, India.

14 June
Gerke, Barbara. Lecture for hospice workers (in German): “Death and Dying in India.” Mobiles Hospiz der Österreichischen Buddhistischen Religionsgesellschaft, Vienna.

Conferences and workshops


27-28 October
Gerke, Barbara: Workshop presentationSowa Rigpa Infectious Disease Etiologies, Buddhist Rituals, and COVID-19 Vaccination Compliance.” Faith in Immunity: Religion, COVID-19 Vaccines, and Structures of Trust, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (via Zoom).

8-9 September
van der Valk, Jan: Invited workshop presentation “Tibetan Medicine and Covid-19 in the Anthropocene: Diagnosing the Spiritual Revenge of Nature.” Heroes and Villains in the Anthropocene: An Authors’ Workshop, St. Catherine’s College, University of Cambridge. Funded by the ERC project The Global Lives of the Orangutan.

12-13 July (postponed from 2020)
Gerke, Barbara, Calum Blaikie and Jan van der Valk
(organizers): Project Workshop “Materiality, Agency and Power: Crafting Potency in Sowa Rigpa and Ritual Practice. ”
ISTB, University of Vienna. Team workshop presentations:

1) Barbara Gerke, Calum Blaikie, Jan van der Valk and Tawni Tidwell: “Project Forum: Working & Thinking with Potent Substances, Introducing the Potent Substances Project: Interactive Discussion.”

2) Barbara Gerke and Calum Blaikie: “Continuity of Potency: Ethnographies of Lineage Substances (phab rta)”

3) Jan van der Valk: “Beyond the Ethnographic Case Study: A Student-Practitioner-Anthropologist Learning the Craft of Tibetan Medicinal Butter Preparation”

3-9 July
Gerke, Barbara, William McGrath, Tawni Tidwell and Jan van der Valk . Panel Organization and Chairing “Responding to Epidemic Outbreaks in Tibetan Contexts: Medicine and Healing in Degenerate Times and More-Than-Human Worlds.” 16th IATS (International Association for Tibetan Studies) Seminar, Charles University and Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague. Team conference presentations:

1) Gerke, Barbara: “Tibetan Spiritual Ecologies of Substances: The Anti-Epidemic “9-Compound Black Pill” (nag po dgu sbyor)”

2) Jan van der Valk: “The Emerging Sowa Rigpa/Environment Interface in the Anthropocene: Reflections on Pandemic Response Ability”

3) Tawni Tidwell, Gonpo Tseten and Rigdzin Dorjee: “Parnashavari, the Leaf-clad Goddess and a Sowa Rigpa Formula for Virulent Infectious Disease”

Gerke, Barbara and Jan van der Valk: discussants at the IATS Panel “What is Materiality in Tibetan Studies?” Organized by Emma Martin, Trine Brox, and Diana Lange.

4 June
Gerke, Barbara. Conference presentation: “Depicting Poisons, Contagion, and Antidotes in Tibetan Medical Paintings of the 17th Century.” Visual Expressions of Health, Illness and Healing, 34th Annual Conference of the Association for Anthropology and Medicine (AGEM), in Cooperation with the Austrian Ethnomedical Society and Weltmuseum Wien.

12-13 May
Gerke, Barbara and Jan van der Valk. Invited discussants for all papers presented over two days. Tibetan Materialities Workshop, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen. Organized by Emma Martin (The University of Manchester), Diana Lange (Universität Hamburg) and Trine Brox (CCBS, University of Copenhagen).
This workshop was funded by the Asian Dynamics Initiative.


7-13 July
Gerke, Barbara, Jan van der Valk and Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim. Conference panel organizers and convenors: “Tibetan Materialities: Exploring Materials, Techniques, and Knowledge Transmission across Disciplines.” Fifteenth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies (IATS), Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO), Paris.

van der Valk, Jan. Paper presentation: “How Do Medicines Become Potent in Sowa Rigpa? Latour’s ‘Network’ versus Ingold’s ‘Meshwork’: An Applied Comparison of Theoretical Frameworks.” Fifteenth IATS Seminar, INALCO, Paris.

Gerke, Barbara. Paper presentation: “Enhancing the Potency of Substances in Sowa Rigpa: Chongzhi (cong zhi), the ‘Essence of Stones.’” Fifteenth IATS Seminar, INALCO, Paris.

Tidwell, Tawni. Conference panel organizer and convenor: “Contemporary Sowa Rigpa Research: Epistemic Challenges in Methodology, Translations and Standards.” Fifteenth IATS Seminar, INALCO, Paris.

Tidwell, Tawni. Paper presentation: “Diagnostic Epistemologies and Ontologies: Comparative Modes of Inquiry in Pramāṇa and Biomarkers.” Fifteenth IATS Seminar, INALCO, Paris.

In preparation for this project

Gerke, Barbara and Jan van der Valk (Conference panel organizers and convenors): “Materiality, Efficacy, and the Politics of Potent Substances.” 9th International Congress on Traditional Asian Medicines (ICTAM), Christian-Albrechts Universität, Kiel, Germany (6.-12.8.2017). Proceedings were published in HIMALAYA 39 (1).

Gerke, Barbara, Jan van der Valk and Cathy Cantwell. Two-day workshop: “‘Potent substances’ between Asian and Europe: Redefining materia medica in Tibetan and Himalayan Medicine and Buddhist ritual.” ISTB, University of Vienna, Austria (1.-2.9.2016). Funded by EASAS.