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On Berlin Plums: Recipes from Johannes Magirus’ Medical Diary

By Sabine Schlegelmilch

For some years now, I’ve been doing research on Johannes Magirus (1615-1697). He was a German physician, and by now has made me shake my head quite often because of a certain quirkyness his writings reveal. On the other hand: when not quarelling with his surroundings or boasting his genius (or then especially?), he makes me learn quite a lot about medicine in the seventeenth century in Germany and abroad. As a student, Magirus travelled through the Netherlands, England and France. He was stunned by the practical approach of bedside teaching he witnessed there, as it was different from any medical education he had known back in Germany.  After his return, he began to practise in Berlin in 1640, and afterwards moved to Zerbst (in Anhalt-Saxony).  He soon left the town again, steaming with anger because of a personal enemy he named the ‘Sauffteuffel’ (booze devil). Finally, he became professor of medicine in Marburg (in Hesse) and tried to implement his experience gained abroad into his own teaching.  In the announcement for his classes, he advertised to take his students to the sick whom, for demonstration purposes, he would treat for free – an early polyclinical  concept largely unknown in Germany for his time.

Titel of Magirus' Medical Diary (University of Marburg Library, Ms. 96)
Titel of Magirus’ Medical Diary [Credit: University Library Marburg]
Magirus managed to reach the respectable age of 82, although he displayed a certain proneness for self-experiment. So he couldn’t help to explore the construction of a fortress while it was besieged (!), and nearly was hit by a cannonball. In medicine, he was equally eager to gain personal experience. His special interest lay in drugs, and in particular in ‘chymical’ ones. We know this from his well-preserved medical diary and a notebook with commonplaces from his time in Berlin and Zerbst. For me, it was fascinating to see how systematical his approach was in drug-testing as a young practitioner. With each recipe he prescribed, he precisely noted its impact on the patient. With a woman in pain, he wrote in his diary: ‘after the first half of my pills, there was no bowel movement, after the second half she had a motion eight times’ or ‘before my pill, she always was in pain at two o’ clock, but afterwards at three o’ clock’. Often there are notes like ‘this is the powder I also have prescribed to the tailor in the roßstrasse’ that show how Magirus drew connections between different cases. He recorded successes as well as failures, and even tried to reduce side effects by singling out the one substance his patient showed an intolerance for, and then substituting it.

Fortunately, with drug-testing on his own body he was more cautious than in his cannonball-adventure. He surely was interested in the effect of new remedies and collected information on them. It is striking, however, that he made excerpts e.g. on mercury but, according to his diary, never used it with his patients, and never did test it on himself. Reading the excerpt in his commonplace book, one doesn’t wonder; it says that

if you use an ointment with mercury, it will cause convulsions, and the patients will get blisters in their throat, their uvula will fall off, they will develop ulcers, all teeth will beginn to loosen and  get black, and a huge amount of stinking spittle will run out of their mouth.

With less dangerous drugs, though, he experimented on himself and noted his personal experience. So we read that some aloe rosata ‘had dried up my stomach and I felt even worse than before’. When one of his colleagues prescribed a plum puree to one of his patients, Magirus took some of it to try it himself. He didn’t like the effect very much, as he ‘felt  a pain and rumble in my left hypochondrium’, and therefore came to the conclusion: ‘so it’s true: sugar and everything sweet are noxious for a spleen condition’. As unpleasant as this plum-related experience was for him, as rewarding was another: one of his patients, an advocat also named Johannes Magirus, obviously had told our Magirus how to prepare a formidable plum-juice with raisins, senis-leaves and fennel-seed that did wonders as a purge. Magirus must have tested this juice, as we can see that in the following time he began to prescribe it to his patients.

MS. 96, p. 22: Magirus crossed out the ingredients of his recipe that he pharmacy couldn't provide and that he had to add from his own stock (addantur in aedibus meis).
Magirus crossed out the ingredients that the pharmacy couldn’t provide and that he had to add from his own stock. [Credit: University Library Marburg]
I imagine Berlin at this time, i.e. just around the end of the Thirty-years-war, as a rather shabby place. Contemporary sources tell us that the elector was absent for most of the time and swine were roaming the mudden streets of the town outside the court-buildings. Magirus’ notes reveal that even the court-pharmacist was not able to provide some of the more sophisticated ingredients for his recipes. So it takes no wonder that something as simple as plums grew essential to his Berlin practice.