All posts by Lisa Smith

A historian of gender and medicine in eighteenth-century France and England, Lisa Smith (Lecturer in Digital History, University of Essex) has published widely on leaky bodies, pain, fertility, and the household. She is finishing a book on “Domestic Medicine: Gender, Health and the Household in Eighteenth Century England and France”. In addition to developing an online database of the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence, she is a co-investigator on a crowd-sourcing recipes transcription project. She blogs at The Sloane Letters Blog and Wonders & Marvels and tweets as @historybeagle.

Recording Dr. Sloane’s Medical Advice

By Lisa Smith

In the hunt for good health, early modern sick people often recorded the prescriptions given to them by doctors, particularly if the remedy was useful or came from a famous source. Sir Hans Sloane was one of the best known physicians in early eighteenth-century London–as well as a collector and natural philosopher, whose correspondence is being put online here. Sloane himself collected recipe books in search of knowledge, but his patients also sometimes recorded his medical advice for later reference. The Arscott Family’s book of “Physical Receipts”, c. 1730-1776 (Wellcome Library, London, MS 981), for example, contains three recipes attributed to Sloane, which provides snippets of information about his medical practice.

Mid-eighteenth century chocolate cups, one of which can be traced to Sloane's collections. Image credit: British Museum.
Mid-eighteenth century chocolate cups, one of which can be traced to Sloane’s collections. Image credit: British Museum.

Although Sloane was best known for his botanical expertise and promotion of treatments such as Peruvian Bark or chocolate, the Arscott family recipes show a mixture of chemical, animal and herbal remedies. The treatment for worms (f. 129), for example, combined a mixture of elixir proprietatis and spirit. salis dulcis in either white wine or tea. Together, these aimed to sweeten the blood, strengthen the nerves and fortify the stomach.

The pleurisy remedy (f. 156) included pennyroyal water, white wine and “2 small Balls of a sound stone horse”—or, dung from a horse that still had its testicles. This was to be steeped for an hour, then strained. (Apparently this weakened the taste of the dung.) This delicious liquor would keep for three days. Are you tempted? Because the dose was a “large Chocolate Dish fasting in the morning and at 4 in the Afternoon”. “If the Stomach will bear it” (and whose wouldn’t?), the patient was to take the remedy for four to six days in a row. In this remedy, the dung was the most powerful ingredient, as it was considered a sudorific (causing sweat) and resolvent (reducing inflammation) that would aid asthma, colic, inflamed lungs, and pleurisies.

Heister, Operation for cataract and eye instruments, 1757 Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Sloane’s remedy would have been preferable to being couched for a cataract. Heister, Operation for cataract and eye instruments, 1757. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane, of course, was especially known for his eye remedy, which he made public knowledge in 1745 when he published An Account of a most efficacious medicine for soreness, weakness, and several other distempers of the eyes. But how close to the published remedy was the Arscott version? Fortunately, the most detailed of the three recipes is “Sr Hans Sloane’s Direction for my Aunt Walroud in ye Year 1730–when she perceiv’d a Cataract growing in one of her Eyes” (ff.79-80).

Although there are measurements and preparation details, just like a recipe, it was also a summary of Sloane’s successful medical advice to Mrs Walroud. Of course, what early modern patients deemed success in a treatment differs from our modern concept. For Mrs Walroud, it was enough that after she started the treatment at the age of 67, her eyes did not get any worse for ten years and “she could write & read tolerably well”. When she died at the age of 83, she still had some of her sight.

The Arscott instructions begin by recommending that the sufferer have nine ounces of blood taken from the arm and a blister applied behind the ears. Next, take a conserve of rosemary flowers, pulvis ad guttetam (ground human skull mixed with various herbs), eyebright, millipedes, fennel seed and peony syrup. Last, the patient was to drink a julap (medicine mixed with alcohol) of black cherry water, fennel water, compound peony water, compound spirit of lavender, sal volat oleos and sugar. Mrs Walroud took both twice daily and kept a “perpetual Blister between her shoulders”.

One crucial difference between Sloane’s published remedy and the Arscott one is that no mention is made in Mrs Walroud’s treatment of using an ointment made of tutty (oxide of zinc), lapis haematites, aloes, prepared pearl and viper’s grease. Three possibilities for the ointment’s absence occur to me.

  • The Arscott family may have simply assumed that the listed directions were intended to accompany the purchase of Sloane’s ointment and didn’t specify something so obvious.
  • The reference to using the ointment was lost when the instructions had been passed between family members.
  • Or, Sloane did not always prescribe the ointment.

The remaining directions, though, do have overlaps. In his Account, Sloane prescribed drinking a medicine that also contained rosemary flowers, pulvis ad guttetam and eyebright—though he included more ingredients: betony, sage, wild valerian root and castor. This was to be followed by a tea (rather than julap) with drops of compound spirit of lavender and sal volat oleos. In this case, it was the Arscott version that included extra ingredients.

The type of bleeding in the Account was also slightly different than Mrs Walroud’s, with the recommendation that six ounces of blood be taken either from the temples using leeches or by cupping at the shoulders. Sloane’s eye remedy was supposed to be useful for many types of problems, he did not prescribe it exactly the same each time. Variations were possible, according to the patient and the problem.

The Arscott recipes suggest not only what advice from Sloane the family had found most useful, but what sorts of remedies Sloane might prescribe to his patients. But whatever Mrs Walroud’s rave review, the next time I suffer from eye strain at the computer, I won’t be reaching for Sloane’s drink with pulvis ad guttetam and millipedes in a hurry.


An earlier version of this post first appeared at The Sloane Letters Blog.

CFP: Sex, Food and History: A Notches Roundtable

Do you like the combination of sex, food and history? Tantalising, isn’t it!? Well, the wonderful blog NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is hosting a special roundtable discussion on this very subject, guest-edited by Rachel Hope Cleves. The CFP follows below, if you’re interested in contributing!


In the age of food porn, few question the connection between food and sexuality. Advertisements depicting Paris Hilton biting into a Carl’s Junior burger, or Nigella Lawson tonguing an ice cream cone, conflate desirable women and caloric food as like objects to be consumed. But food and sexuality share histories that lay far outside today’s commodity fetishism. From Ayurvedic medical theories linking diet and sexual health, through ancient Greek recipes for aphrodisiacs, to Christian theologies equating hunger and lust as carnal appetites, and finally to the emergence of foodie culture during the era of sexual liberation, a long history lies behind today’s marketing imagery.

Notches is seeking short essays (1000 – 1500 words) exploring any aspect of the interconnections between the histories of sexuality and the histories of food, for a special roundtable to be guest-edited by Rachel Hope Cleves, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria. We encourage submissions from outside North America, and from prior to the twentieth century, as well as submissions exploring recent shifts that explain how we arrived at the present.

Possible topics for exploration include:

  • religious concepts of appetite, desire and carnality
  • queer and straight domesticities
  • restaurants and sexual commerce
  • gendered hunger and sexual subjectivity
  • sexual and dietary health
  • body / sexual images and food

Style and image guidelines:

  • Submissions should be written for a non-specialist and international audience. Therefore, avoid jargon and use hyperlinks – not footnotes –to clarify terms or concepts that may be unfamiliar to a general readership.
  • Include at least one relevant image for which you have obtained permission and caption your image with clear attribution information. We welcome your use of a range of sources such as movies or sound files.
  • Include a short hyperlinked author bio with your submission.

Essay submissions due by July 1st to All submissions to Notches will go through an internal peer review process prior to publication.

Welcome to our new co-editor!

By Lisa Smith

Amanda Herbert, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2014).
Amanda Herbert, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2014).

Elaine Leong and I are delighted to welcome a new co-editor to The Recipes Project: Amanda Herbert! Many of you will already be familiar with her work, either through her blog posts here at The Recipes Project or from her wonderful new book Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain. I recently had the opportunity to ask Amanda a bit about her wide-ranging teaching and research interests in recipes. Without further ado, let me introduce you to Amanda–in her own words!

1. What interests you most about recipes? 

This is a very literal answer, but: the ingredients. (See, for example, “Early Modern Comfort Foods“.) They tell us an enormous amount about the material lives of the people who wrote, read, and used recipes. How much money did they have?  What was their educational, spiritual, and cultural background?  What sort of ecological or environmental landscape surrounded them?  And which trade routes and markets allowed them access to goods from abroad?  Recipe ingredients provide a wealth of usually inaccessible information about the lives and experiences of people in the past.

2. You recently had a book, Female Alliances, come out and have blogged a bit about women’s use of recipes and domestic production to foster those alliances. (See Amanda’s post on “Never Too Many Cooks”, Part 1 and Part 2.) What was your biggest surprise in your research on this topic?

While conducting research for the book, I was surprised (and delighted) to see how many times early modern British recipes referenced urban space and geography.  When women inscribed recipes into their manuscript collections, they often included information about which shopkeepers to trust, where to purchase rare or unusual ingredients, and how to travel the streets and alleys of early modern cities.  This allowed women to help one another in navigating the often male-dominated medical and culinary worlds of early modern Europe.  I think that there is much promising work to be done on the relationship between recipes and urban space.

3. As a researcher, what has been your favourite recipe book to use–and why?

It’s hard to choose, but I think that one of the most interesting, and also the most poignant, recipe books with which I’ve worked is the one that I blogged about in my very first post for the Recipes Project: the Charles Brigham Account book, held by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. The book (c. 1650-1730) was initially created in London, and then was carried across the Atlantic Ocean by its owners when they emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to become settlers in the “new world” of British North America. The book shows how the owners attempted to incorporate American plants and animals into their diets and medicines, and how they worked to maintain aspects of their old culture and life in their new home.  It’s an amazing resource.

4. You recently had a student write a post for Recipes Project on food in the American Civil War. How do you use recipes/food in your teaching? And why do you think this is important?

I love bringing historical recipes into the classroom.  Students in my classes have tasted eighteenth-century-style chocolate, they’ve done independent study projects on Civil War soldiers’ diets, and they’ve learned about (and used) early modern ink–a topic on which I’ll be writing in a future Recipes Project post!  Historically, recipes were critical to the way that people lived, worked, and survived in the past, and so I think that study of any historical period should include references to the foods, medicines, and crafts that were made and used by the historical actors under examination.  And pedagogically, recipes provide an excellent way for students to learn about close reading and analysis.  Recipes are deceptively simple: students can read a recipe in five minutes, but the much slower process of unpacking and analyzing the methods, ingredients, attributions, and geospatial references teaches students about the richness and complexity of historical sources.

5. Now that your book is out, what’s your current research project?

Spa: Faith, Public Health, and Politics in Early Modern Britain examines the complex medical marketplaces of the seventeenth-century British Atlantic world. (Ed. note: See Amanda’s post on “Drinking Stinking Spa Waters” for a little taste.) Spa cities lay at the intersection of many important early modern cultural and intellectual phenomena: they organized community-run systems of social security; they offered medical aid to war veterans; they provided women with opportunities to create independent businesses; they fostered unusual, and sometimes unorthodox, religious and political debate; and they offered venues for the poor and ‘masterless’ to make their voices heard through public processions, protests, and works of art.  But most studies of hot spring cities have focused on the eighteenth-century alone, and on the practices of sociability and marriage-making which structured the elite, aristocratic culture of the spa at that time.  My book aims to recover the seventeenth-century world of the spa, and to reclaim the early modern urban spa as an important site for the study of the history of popular culture and public health.  I’m also working on a digital history project which is related to the book: “Mapping the Medical Marketplace in the Early Modern World.”  I’m very excited about both new projects!

And we’re excited to have Amanda joining The Recipes Project!

Spring: when thoughts of fancy turn to itchy, watery eyes

By Lisa Smith

A number of my Tweet-friends have recently been complaining about the severity of their hay fever this spring. @KateMorant asked:

Is there any #earlymodern advice/ recipes for hay fever? I’ll try anything short of applying leeches to eyes.

Advert for Histantin, a Burroughs Wellcome and Co antihistaminic agent showing a couple eating a picnic in a field while a farmer piles hay onto a cart, 1965. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Advert for Histantin, a Burroughs Wellcome and Co antihistaminic agent showing a couple eating a picnic in a field while a farmer piles hay onto a cart, 1965. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But… trying to figure out what people might have used to treat their symptoms in early modern England is no easy matter. The term hay fever, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was not used until 1829. What we know now as “hay fever” was first described in 1819 by Dr. John Bostock, who presented his own case for study as being “an unusual train of symptoms”: itchy, swollen and watery eyes, sneezing, and difficulty breathing. Over the years, Bostock had tried bleeding, purging, blisters, diet, Peruvian bark, steel, opium, mercury, cold bathing, digitalis… and, of course, many eye remedies. None of these had apparently helped.

Keeping in mind the relatively new description of hay fever as an ailment, I decided that the best way to track down early modern hay fever remedies would be according to symptoms. Of the symptoms typically associated with hay fever, itchy eyes are the easiest to trace—and even this was no mean feat.

I started off with the Wellcome Library’s wonderful online collection of seventeenth and early eighteenth century recipe books. Although there are lots of remedies to treat eye problems, many of these were a bit general, such as “The Lady Iveys Eye Watter” listed in the Johnson Family’s book (1694-1725). These eye drops, which included the white of a new laid egg, spring water and alum, could be used to treat “all distempers in yr Eyes pertickuler for any thing that grows”. So, although allergy-ridden eyes could in theory be treated with this remedy, it was not the most specific choice.

Fortunately, none of the remedies I looked at used this as an ingredient! Thomas Rowlandson, A Village Doctress Distilling Eyewater, 1800. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Fortunately, none of the remedies I looked at used this as an ingredient! Thomas Rowlandson, A Village Doctress Distilling Eyewater, 1800. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Brumwich family (1625-1700) may have been hay fever sufferers, as there were three somewhat more useful remedies in their collection: “A watter for eyes that are red & watterey aproved”, “A resceipt for wattering eyes” and “A water for sore eyes whose lides are all swelled”. All had an “X” or a “+” beside them, indicating—along with the one “aproved” that the recipes had been tried. The “watter for eyes” was essentially a sugar water that could be sponged or dropped into the eyes, while “A resceipt” included orris [iris] root and white copris [possibly a beetle?] steeped in water. The “water for sore eyes” used red rose water and powdered aloes. Of course, there is no guarantee that these were for allergy symptoms, especially as the third recipe was included alongside remedies for blindness and sore eyes.

None of them give me any confidence.

The English Physician enlarged (1718) by Nicholas Culpeper, however, offered some potential explanations—as well as solutions—for itchy, watery eyes. A juice of celandine, field daisies and ground ivy in clarified water with dissolved sugar was a “soveraign remedy for all pains, redness, watering”, which sounds promising, but it also treated pins and webs and skins and films (p. 10). Barley, which was ruled by Saturn, could be cooling and cleansing, especially for inflammation problems (pp. 29-30). Eye drops distilled from green barley gathered at the end of May was particularly good for sufferers who had “Defluctions of Humours fallen into their Eyes”. Both remedies suggest that symptoms might be seen as defluxions (a discharge of fluid) or inflammations. Makes sense.

But another type of classification in Culpeper put itchy, swollen eyes alongside poisons and the venemous bites. This made sense; the blood in such cases was seen as poisoned and overly hot. White beets and borage and bugloss were all ruled by Jupiter, which made them cleansing and strengthening. The beets could treat internal obstructions, headaches, venemous bites, eye inflammations and—interestingly—“wheals”, something rather like a hive (pp. 36-37). Borage and bugloss roots and leaves were good for putrid and pestilential fevers and poisons, while the leaves and seeds might help cleanse the blood and excess heats. The distilled water could be used as an eye wash for red and inflamed eyes (pp. 50-51). Modern hay fever sufferers, no doubt, will also understand this parallel with poisoning, with  pollen and dust acting as daily sources of misery.

Trying to identify hay fever-like symptoms in early modern England is a difficult business, as these eye remedies reveal. And this, before we even get to the sneezing! A quick digital search through Culpeper’s on Eighteenth Century Collections Online shows that all references to sneezing were in positive terms. For example, under “Clary, or more properly Cleer-Eye”, Culpeper noted that the powder of the dry root “provoketh Sneezing and thereby Purgeth the Head and Brain of much Rheum and Corruption” (p. 90). In other words, while Culpeper offered up lots of remedies for the eye symptoms, nothing could—or should—be done about the sneezing.

Sneezing: nature’s way of purging the body? But at least no leeches were required…