Discussions based on the question ‘which period of history would
you most like to have lived in?’ founder as soon as we consider the
subject of medicine; we scurry back to the safety of modern hospitals,
surgeries and doctors. But was medicine in the distant past so different,
so bizarre and distressing? Did people, until the late Victorian era,
live in a dark age of blood-letting, willful ignorance of hygiene and the
ingestion of medicines made from powdered toads and brandy?
Yes and no. Certainly, looking at pre-modern medical procedures can
be frustrating at times – straightforward procedures such as washing
hands and boiling water would have saved many lives; yet for thousands
of years people have been using simple, natural ingredients in medicines
that worked then, and still work now.
The truth is that while many
remedies from the past were absurd, misguided and horrific, many were
viable; they can provoke recognition as well as horror, amazement and amusement.
In his new book How to Cure the Plague, Julian Walker explores the science behind a wide range of history's cures. Some of our favorites are collected here.
[Wintergreen] boiled in wine and water and given to drink to them that have any inward ulcers in their kidneys or neck of the bladder, doth wonderfully help them; it stayeth also all fluxes, whether of blood or humours, [such] as the lask, bloody flux, women’s courses, and bleeding of the womb, and taketh away any inflammation rising upon pains of the heart.
– The English Physitian, Nicholas Culpeper, 1652
Oil of wintergreen, now obtained by distillation of the leaves, contains methyl salicylate, similar to aspirin, which is a longstanding treatment for cardiovascular conditions including heart attacks, acting as an anti-inflammatory and blood thinner.
Take snails that have shells, pick them, and with the juice that cometh
from them rub the wart every day for the space of seven or eight days,
and it will destroy them.
– A Choice Manual of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick
and Chyrurgery, Elizabeth Grey, 1653
While snail mucus is used in various parts of the world for medical
and cosmetic purposes, the scientific community is still divided as to its
efficacy. The visual similarity between warts and snail shells and toad skin
has inevitably led to those animals’ unwilling participation in treatment.
First the patient should be bled in the arm, or leeches may be applied
to the inflamed parts; afterwards take a handful of green rue, bruise
it, and put it to the part affected; or take marshmallows a handful,
camomile a handful, make a decoction in a pint of water, pour the
liquor from the herbs, add two drams of the tincture of opium, bathe
the part; afterwards apply the herbs as a poultice, or make a poultice
of oatmeal and vinegar with a little sweet oil in it. Warts and chancres
may be destroyed, by touching the warts with a blue stone vitriol, or …
by washing them with a solution of corrosive sublimate.
– The Family Physician, Edward Bullman, 1789
‘Blue stone vitriol’ was a solution of copper sulphate, effective as an
antiseptic, but it can burn skin, especially in sensitive areas. Whether it
would be preferable to leeches in this case is a difficult call. And ‘a solution
of corrosive sublimate’ was mercuric chloride; when you thought things
couldn’t get any worse, you’ll be pleased to know this was formerly used to
burn away corns.
Take twelve yolks of eggs, and put them in a pot over the fire, and let
them stand till you perceive them to grow black, then put them in a
press and press out the oil. This oil is good for all manner of burning
and scaldings whatever.
– The Queens Closet Opened, W.M., 1696
Oil derived from the yolk of eggs is indeed very good for burns.
This disease is a weakness of the mind, without being deprived of
intellect, which renders people unhappy in the midst of pleasure, and
often deprives them of performing the duties of life; the cause may be
from the stoppage of any usual evacuation, from grief, intense study,
narcotic or stupefactive poisons, the striking of eruptions, [such] as the
scurvy, scrophula, or from too much solitude; or a fever on the spirits,
obstruction of the menses, etc.
this is a fairly astute assessment of what would now be called depression,
it is notable that the first given possible source is constipation; should we
think of this as an indication of what might reasonably be called the English
‘disease’, namely an obsession – which lasted well into the twentieth century
– with emptying the bowels?
Rosemary 1 handful, cloves 40, salt of scurvy-grass 2 oz, omphacine
3 lb; boil to 2 lb. It is good for putrid gums in the scurvy.
– Bates’ Dispensatory, translated and edited by William Salmon, 1694
Long before the introduction of lemons and limes into the diets of sailors,
scurvy-grass was a welcome food for returning mariners. It grows widely in
coastal areas in the northern hemisphere, and is rich in Vitamin C.
Mire doves’ dung with vinegar, and apply it.
– The Garden of Health, William Langham, 1578
Langham’s use of bird droppings in the eyes was continued into the
eighteenth century by, among others, Sir William Read, oculist to Queen
Anne, whose treatment involved ‘the juice of goose dung or the white part
of hen’s dung’.
The main constituents of hen dung are nitrogen, phosphorus
and potassium, with a wide range of traces of other minerals, but the
near-certainty of transmitting disease through fungal infection must have
outweighed any possible benefits.
Take a pot of barley, and seethe it in a gallon of well-water, and let it
seethe until the barley be lost; then strain it and put thereto as much
new wort as of the aforesaid licquor, and put therein a good quantity
of sage, and as much hyssop, and a pennyworth of liquorice well
bruised; then seethe it again until it be half consumed away; then
strain it and put it into a glass, or into some other close vessel, and so
let it stand the space of one whole day, and let the party grieved drink
two or three spoonfuls of it at a time, both morning and evening, and
this will help him in a short space. This hath been well proved.
– A Rich Storehouse, or Treasurie for the Diseased, 1607
'Wort' is unfermented beer – the mix of grain and water, which would
be soothing to drink; hyssop is a good expectorant, while sage has long
been used against fevers. Liquorice’s soothing properties mean that it is still
a common ingredient in cough medicines.
Take thy finger ends, and stop both thine ears very hard, and the
hickop will surcease immediately.
I tried it, and it worked.