Category Archives: Marieke Hendriksen

Hydrophobia and madness: eighteenth-century recipes against Rabies

Recently, I came across an eighteenth-century ‘cure’ for rabies in a Dutch medical handbook, consisting of onion boiled with salt and honey.[1] As I had recently been vaccinated against rabies for a trip to Asia and had been lectured by the nurse about the dangers of rabies, this recipe made me curious.

A mad dog on the run in a London street: citizens attack it as it approaches a woman who has fallen over. Coloured etching by T.L. Busby, 1826. Wellcome Library, London.
A mad dog on the run in a London street: citizens attack it as it approaches a woman who has fallen over. Coloured etching by T.L. Busby, 1826. Wellcome Library, London.

A quick search for eighteenth-century Dutch medical literature on rabies gave a surprising result: in the first half of the eighteenth century only two pamphlets and some general listings in medical and pharmaceutical handbooks occurred. However, around 1790 there seems to have been a sudden spike in the number of medical publications on the occurrence and treatment of rabies. It is difficult, if not impossible to tell what the reasons were. There may have been some kind of outbreak of the disease in the Netherlands at the time, or maybe the number of cases rose steeply in this period because of the increased popularity of pet dogs, as a recent German study has suggested.[2]

Whatever the reasons, a wide array of cures against rabies was suggested. Apart from the onion-honey-salt concoction, I encountered, amongst others, the following:

– A brew of ten different roots and herbs, boiled in three pitchers of old beer or vinegar. The wound should also be washed with it.[3]

– Drawing the poison from the wounds with ‘fresh earth, sand, mud or tobacco,’ and feeding the patient beer vinegar mixed with butter, combined with a strict diet and blood-letting.[4] This author was so kind as to inform his readers about remedies that did not work too, such as May bugs in honey, mercurial rubbings, and wood beverages.

– Three egg yolks, fried with three half-egg shells full of ‘tree oil,’ taken for two days and applied to the wound for nine.[5]

'Recept tegen de Dolligheyd van Menschen en Beesten,' (recipe against madness in humans and animals) anonymous pamplet, 1723
‘Recept tegen de Dolligheyd van Menschen en Beesten,’ (recipe against madness in humans and animals) anonymous pamplet, 1723

Sadly, none of this would have done anything to cure rabies. Until Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine in 1885, a rabies infection was invariably fatal. People probably believed the remedies listed here worked because not every ‘mad dog’ is a rabid dog, and many of the reports of ‘cured’ cases were made within days of someone being bitten. As it can take up to a year for rabies to manifest itself, depending on the location and the severity of the bite, people undoubtedly died of ‘hydrophobia’ months after a bite wound would have healed, thus missing the link between the incident and the disease.

The best way to deal with rabies in the 1790s was to avoid it, as also shown in a 1798 advert. It appeared in a spectatorial journal and commended a set of six prints, to be put up in chirurgeon’s shops and taverns. The prints advised the general public on the avoidance of and ways to deal with dangers. The first of these tables dealt with “the bite of a Mad [rabid] Dog, and shows the picture of a picture of a Mad Dog. Furthermore, it deals with poisons, the swallowing of harmful bodies, strikes by lightening, and the suffocation of children.”[6]


[1] M. Noel Chomel, Huishoudelyk woordboek, Vervattende vele middelen om zyn goed te vermeerderen, en zyne gezondheid te behouden, Met verscheiden wisse en beproefde middelen (vertaling Jan Lodewyk Schuer en A.H. Westerhof). S. Luchtmans/H. Uytwerf, Leiden/Amsterdam 1743, 30.

[2] Steinbrecher, A, “Zur Kulturgeschichte der Hundehaltung in der Vormoderne: Eine (Re)Lektüre von Tollwut-Traktaten,” Schweizer Archiv für Tierheilkunde, vol. 152 (2010),no. 1: 31-37

[3] Recept tegen de Dolligheyd van Menschen en Beesten, anonymous pamplet, 1723

[4] J.D.M. Cleve, “Verhandeling over den Dollen-Honds beet.” Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen. A. van der Kroe en J. Yntema, Amsterdam 1792, 102-109.

[5] A.J.A. Looff, “Middel, alhoewel eenvoudig in zyn voorkomen, egter proefondervindelyk zeer vermogend eevonden, tegen de geduchte gevolgen van den Dollen Honds-beet, of de watervrees, op nieuw bekend gemaakt.” Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen. A. van der Kroe en J. Yntema, Amsterdam 1790, 371-3.

[6] Advertisement for “Zestal van Tafelen, behelzende eene algemeene opgave der middelen tot redding in schielyke gevaaren, enz. Door Dr. A.C. Struve. Te Amsterdam, by A.B. Saakes, 1798.” in: Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen. A. van der Kroe en J. Yntema en zoon, Amsterdam 1798, 583.

Metallic cures: antimonial wine and mineral kermes

By Marieke Hendriksen

In my previous post, I wrote about the ubiquity of mercurial drugs in the long eighteenth century. Mercury is a metal we are all quite familiar with, yet a variety of cures was based on metals and metallic compounds well into the nineteenth century – some of which we hardly hear of anymore today. Drugs based on antimony, a lustrous grey metalloid often found in ores together with either sulfur or mercury, and mineral kermes, a compound of antimony trioxide and trisulfide, were very popular. In universal encyclopedias from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century for example, we find complicated recipes to create mineral kermes, which involve repeated distilling of a mixture of sulfur of antimony, fixed niter or potassium carbonate, and river- or rainwater.[i]

Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.
Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.

Although it unlikely anyone tried these recipes at home, the use of antimony and its derivatives had a long tradition. Antimony cups were used since antiquity to make antimonial wine by soaking regular wine in it for one or more days.[ii] The fact that antimony frequently occurred together with mercury or sulphur appealed to alchemists, apothecaries, and other medical men and women, as sulphur and mercury were considered the basic alchemical elements. Moreover, as antimony could cleanse the most precious metal, gold, from impurities, alchemists reasoned it could also cleanse and cure God’s most precious creature, created after his own image: man. Hence Paracelsus (1493-1541) and many of his followers advocated the use of small amounts of antimony in iatrochemical drugs, although they were well aware of the fact that it is highly poisonous.

Antimonial wine thus was a tried emetic, yet antimony cups were forbidden in England and France for much of the seventeenth century, as the use of a wine too acidic would result in a lethal concoction. This prohibition was sometimes circumnavigated by creating antimony cups from tin with a small amount of antimony.[iii] In France antimony cups became legal once more in 1658, after Louis XIV was cured from typhoid fever with antimonial wine.[iv] After this royal endorsement of antimony, men of science started to investigate it more closely than ever before. Between 1700 and 1707 the French chemist Lemery wrote an extensive series of articles on antimony and its medicinal uses for the Académie des Sciences, culminating in a book describing all the changes it underwent by chemical procedures, and how the resulting substances could be used in medicine.[v] The Leiden professor of chemistry Gaub too devoted a substantial part of his lectures on metals on antimony and mineral kermes, extensively discussing the chemical procedures that should be applied to create effective medical materials.[vi]

French Apothecary Bottle: Kermes Mineral, 1880s. Courtesy of Dr Jack Fincham.
French Apothecary Bottle with traces of Kermes Mineral, 1880s. Courtesy of Dr Jack Fincham.

The recipes in the encyclopedias show that mineral kermes was one of the most important medical materials that could be created through chemically treating antimony. As can still be seen in a late nineteenth-centruy French apothecary bottle, it is a reddish brown powder. The powder does not dissolve in water and, like mercury, had a reputation for cleansing the lymphatic vessels, and was also used as an emetic and diaphoretic. The name was probably derived from the Arabic name for a similarly coloured crimson dye made from insects, al-qirmiz. The use of mineral kermes as a drug was apparently first mentioned by Glauber (1604-1670), but how to successfully create it remained a subject of debate into the nineteenth century, even after an official recipe was published by the king of France in 1720.[vii]


[i] De Felice, Fortunato Bartolomeo, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire universel raisonné des connoissances, (Paris, 1773), Vol. 25, p. 345. Wilkes, John, Encyclopaedia Londinensis, or, Universal Dictionary of Arts (London: J. Adlard, 1810), Vol. iv, p. 277.

[ii] Also see one of my previous blogs on The Medicine Chest.

[iii] StClair Thomson, “Antimonyall Cupps: Pocula Emetica or Calices Vomitorii”, Proc. Roy. Soc. Med., Vol. XIX, no. 9, 1925, 123-8.

[iv] C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012, 49.

[v] Lemery, Nicolás, Traité de L’antimoine (Paris: Jean Boudot, 1707).

[vi] Gaub, H.D., ‘Chemiae Praxis. Notes of Lectures by an Unnamed Student. Produced in Leyden.’, Closed stores WMS 4  MS.2479, Wellcome Library Manuscripts, p. 593-685.

[vii] Willich, A.F.M., A Domestic Encyclopedia Or A Dictionary Of Facts, And Useful Knowledge, 3 vols. (London: B. McMillan, 1802), p. 46.

‘Mercurialia are worrisome’: dangerous recipes

By Marieke Hendriksen

To anyone familiar with the practices of Thomas Dover (1662-1742), alias the Quicksilver Doctor, it may seem like mercury and mercury-based drugs were prescribed and taken rather indiscriminately by physicians, apothecaries and patients in the eighteenth century.[i] However, pharmaceutical handbooks, often written by experienced pharmacists under the auspices of university professors of medicine, give an entirely different view. These handbooks, some of which were reprinted in great numbers for decades, were aimed at professional apothecaries and other medical men. Although virtually every pharmaceutical handbook listed mercurial drugs, they all warn against using them too liberally.

Title page of the 1681 edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica. Credit: Amsterdam University Library.
Title page of the 1681 edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica. Credit: Amsterdam University Library.

A good example can be found in the four Dutch editions of the Medicina pharmaceutica, or Great general treasury of pharmaceutical medicine, which appeared between 1681 and 1741.[ii] In the first edition, at least nine different recipes involving mercury in some form are listed. Because of mercury’s alleged cleansing and purging properties, these cures were recommended for ailments as diverse as intestinal worms, venereal disease, and skin infections.[iii]

However, in the fifth book of that same edition, the volume on ‘Shop Compositions’ (drugs composed to sell ready made in the apothecaries’ shop), over half a page is spend on a warning about antimonial and mercurial drugs, summarized in the index as ‘Mercurialia zyn sorghelyck,’ which translates as ‘Mercurialia are worrisome.’ Following a list of drugs prepared from a variety of minerals, metals and stones, the author warns that it is not his intention to give the ‘Masters of medicine’ the idea that they should prescribe these dangerous cures often; only when there were no other options left should they revert to them.[iv] The other options, it appears, were mainly traditional herbal remedies, as the author writes:

God almighty has blessed us with some common or native herbs and remedies, that have such a power invested in them, that these can be used in general and without vicissitudes or thinking twice to cure the ill, so one should always use these first, before one turns to some dangerous and strange medicaments from chemistry; so it would be a great deception and recklessness to apply prepared Antimony or Quicksilver, if one is provided with other harmless and powerful remedies, as the former often needlessly do great damage, or could even cause death.[v]

Only if a disease did not respond to the herbal remedies could ‘dangerous chemical preparations’ be applied. As this was the first edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica from 1681, and the first decades of the eighteenth century saw an increasing incorporation of chemistry in the academy, one might expect that the last edition from 1741 was less tentative about the prescription of chemical remedies.[vi] Previous editions had been printed in Brussels, but the 1741 edition was printed in Leiden–a city with one of the leading medical faculties of Europe at the time. The reprint even had a preface written by the Leiden professor of chemistry Hieronymus Gaub. Although the spelling of the 1741 edition was updated to modern standards, the same old warning was once again repeated.

This raises questions about the extent to which early chemical research and teaching at universities was changing professional medical men’s understanding and application of mercurial, or other chemically-based, remedies. Moreover, the apparent contrast between the cautions and warnings in professional handbooks like these and popular culture on the one hand, and the ostensible popularity of mercury remedies on the other, makes this a fascinating research topic.


[i] Also see Kenneth Dewhurst, The Quicksilver Doctor. The Life and Times of Thomas Dover Physician and Adventurer (Bristol: John Wright & Sons Ltd., 1957).

[ii] Robertus de Farvacques, Medicina pharmaceutica, of Groote algemeene schatkamer der drôgbereidende geneeskonst (Leiden: Isaak Severinus, 1741). De Farvacques, the personal physician of Charles II, was not really the author of this book. His name was used by the actual author, the Brussels friar Peter Gilles, to lend it more authority. See L.J. Vanderwiele, “Broeder Petrus Gillis S.J. (1620-1697), Auteur van Medicina Pharmaceutica of Drogbereidende Geneeskonst”, Kring voor de geschiedenis van de pharmacie in de Benelux. Bulletin. 69 (maart 1986): 8–16.

[iii] Robertus de Farvacques, Medicina pharmaceutica, of Groote algemeene schatkamer der drôgbereidende geneeskonst. (Brussels, Francois Foppens, 1681), Vol. V, 932-5, 951-5.

[iv] Ibid., 967.

[v] Ibid.: ‘Want aengesien Godt almachtigh ons met eenighe ghemeynsaeme, oft inlandtsche heylsaeme kruyden ende drôghen heeft ghejont, die met sulcken kracht zyn begaeft, dat-men ghemeynelyck met de selve sonder peryckel oft achterdencken de siecken kan ghenesen, soo behoort-men altoos eerst de selve the ghebruycken, eer men sich begheeft om eenighe ghevaerlycke ende vremde middelen uyt de schey-konst te nemen; soo dat het een groot bedrogh oft reuckeloosheydt soude wesen, achter den bereyden Antimonie oft Quick in ‘t werck te stellen, soo wanneer men versien is van andere schadeloose ende krachtighe remedien, door dien men also dickmaels sonder noot aen onsen evenaesten groote schade, jae de doodt selfs soude konnen aen-brenghen.’ (Translation mine)

[vi] On the formation of chemistry as an academic discipline in the early eighteenth century see Bruce Moran, Distilling Knowledge. Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), chapter 4.