Benjamin P Breen
  • Pronouns he, him, his, his, himself
  • Title
    • Associate Professor
  • Division Humanities Division
  • Department
    • History Department
  • Phone
  • Email
  • Website
  • Office Location
    • Stevenson College Academic Building, 279
  • Office Hours Spring and Summer 2024: By appointment, please email to set up a zoom or in-person meeting
  • Mail Stop History Department
  • Faculty Areas of Expertise Science Studies, Colonialism, Digital Humanities, Drug Policy, World History
  • Courses HIS 70A , HIS 196F , HIS 100 , HIS 2A , HIS 177A
  • Advisees, Grad Students, Researchers Piper Milton

Summary of Expertise

I'm an associate professor of history at UCSC interested in the history of science, medicine, empire, and the long-term impacts of technological change. My most recent book, Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science, was published in 2024 and positively reviewed in The New Yorker (here's their review article), The New York Times, Science, Publisher's Weekly, and The Wall Street Journal. I was interviewed about the book by Terry Gross for the National Public Radio show Fresh Air.


My first book The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) explores how drug users and sellers in the British and Portuguese empires helped to shape imperialism, global trade, and scientific practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It won the 2021 William H. Welch Medal from the American Association for the History of Medicine.


My doctoral advisor at UT Austin (PhD, 2015) was Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, and I was trained as a historian of the early modern Iberian empires and the Atlantic world. I am currently working on two book projects (one a history of the entangled concepts of extinction and apocalyptic technology in the early modern period, the other a family and imperial history of applied science in the period between the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa and the outbreak of World War I).


As of summer, 2024 I am accepting graduate students in the fields of comparative or global early modern history, the history of medicine, drugs, and pharmaceuticals, the history of science, and the history of technology and its social or cultural impacts.


I'm also very interested in the use of AI for experiential learning, and am actively exploring the educational potential of LLM-based historical simulations; you can read about some of this work in progress here.


You can find my CV here.

Research Interests

Early modern world history; history of science, medicine, and technology; Spanish and Portuguese empires; history of drugs and poisons; history of globalization; history and anthropology of magic in a cross-cultural context.

Biography, Education and Training

Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin, May 2015.

Honors, Awards and Grants

2020-21 National Endowment for the Humanities Award for researching and writing Tripping on Utopia.

Society of Fellows Postdoctoral Fellowship, Columbia University 2015-2016

Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Critical Bibliography, 2014-16

Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, 2014-15

Dissertation Fellow, McNeil Center for Early American Studies, University of Pennsylvania, 2013-14

Fulbright fellowship to Portugal, 2011-2012

Selected Publications



Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science (Grand Central/Hachette Book Group, 2024).


The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019; paperback, 2021).

• Winner of the 2021 William H. Welch Medal from the American Association for the History of Medicine. 


Peer-reviewed articles & chapters (all available as PDFs below):


“‘That Vast Quantity of Laudanum I Have Been Known to Take’: Globalization, Empire, and the Performance of Addiction in the Eighteenth Century," English Language Notes 60, no. 1 (2022): 82-100


“Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire: Pyric Technologies and African Pipes in the Early Modern World.” Osiris 37, no. 1 (2022): 139-162


"The Failed Globalization of Psychedelic Drugs in the Early Modern World," The Historical Journal, Volume 65 (February 2022), 12-29.


The Flip Side of the Pharmacopoeia: Poisons in the Atlantic World,” in Matthew Crawford and Joseph Gabriel, eds., Drugs on the Page: Pharmacopoeias and Healing Knowledge in the Early Modern Atlantic World (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019).


“Semedo’s Sixteen Secrets: Tracing Pharmacological Networks in the Portuguese Tropics,” in Paula Findlen, ed. Empires of Knowledge: Scientific Networks in the Early Modern World (Routledge, 2018).


“Empires on Drugs: Materia Medica and the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance,” in Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, ed. Entangled Empires: The Anglo-Iberian Atlantic, 1500-1830 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).


“Drugs and Early Modernity,” History Compass, Vol. 15, No. 4 (April, 2017).


“No Man Is an Island: Early Modern Globalization, Knowledge Networks, and George Psalmanazar’s Formosa,” The Journal of Early Modern History, 17/4 (August, 2013), 391-417.


“Hybrid Atlantics: Future Directions for the History of the Atlantic World,” History Compass, 18/8 (August, 2013), 597-609.


"'The Elks Are Our Horses’: Animals and Domestication in the New French Borderlands,” Journal of Early American History, No. 3 (December, 2013), 188-205  


“Portugal, Early Modern Globalization and the Origins of the Global Drug Trade,” Perspectives on Europe, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring 2012), 84-88.


Selected popular writing:

"Our Strange Addiction," Lapham's Quarterly, March 15, 2021. 

"'Theire Soe Admirable Herbe': How the English Found Cannabis," Public Domain Review, February 19, 2020.  

“Palm Trees and Potions: On Portuguese Pharmacy Signs,” The Recipes Project, July, 2016.

"Into the Mystic," Aeon Magazine, 2015.

“Victorian Occultism and the Art of Synesthesia,” in The Public Domain Review, 2014.

"The King of the Islands of Refreshment" in The Appendix, 2014.

"The Literature of Laughing Gas," in The Paris Review, 2014.

"The Pre-Modern History of Outer Space," in The Atlantic, 2013.


Teaching Interests

- Early modern and modern science, medicine, and technology
- History of the Iberian peninsula and of the Spanish and Portuguese empires
- History of drugs and poisons
- Social and cultural responses to technological change
- AI and education