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Gumpowder? A strange little recipe for sensitive teeth…

If you go to your bathroom and check the ingredients in your well-known brand of sensitive toothpaste, you may well find that the recipe contains the active ingredient potassium nitrate. Also known as saltpetre or nitre, this naturally occurring mineral is found in foods as a preservative (e.g. corned beef), and used in fertilizer, cigarettes, blood pressure medicines and fireworks. Since medieval times it has formed one of the main ingredients in gunpowder, and it is this connection that has also given potassium nitrate a long association with teeth and gums.

Many of the seventeenth and eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Library’s manuscripts include treatments for gunpowder burns, but some also proposed that gunpowder could be therapeutic. Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (sister to the famous chemist Robert Boyle), recommended a ‘little gunpowder’ applied in a linen cloth to ease toothache. On one page of Anne Brumwich’s recipe book (Wellcome MS 160, p.83) we can find nine recipes for toothache remedies written in two different hands. One, ‘An aproved medecine for ye toothake’ (approved meant that it worked) required gunpowder, aniseed water and lint, mingled together to ‘make a litell thing’.

Once the sufferer had picked their tooth very clean, the recipe instructed them to push the preparation into the tooth, taking care not to allow any of the mixture down the throat.

A century later, in A Treatise on the Scurvy (1795) David Paterson introduced his fellow naval surgeons to a wonderful, and apparently unknown remedy for scurvy: during a voyage in 1784, he claimed, he had restored the health of eighty sick seamen not with lemon juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, but with the potassium nitrate extracted from the gunpowder in his ship’s stores. Paterson’s remedy was soon forgotten, until in 1828, a desperate surgeon named Charles Cameron, having used up all his supplies of lemon juice, remembered Paterson’s recipe. Cameron was stranded in the calms near the equator and he was faced with a ship’s hospital full of scorbutic convicts, less than half way through the voyage to Australia. He extracted the nitre from the powder, dissolved some of it in vinegar, and mixed some more with vinegar and lime juice. He also added a little sugar (to taste?!) The effects were ‘miraculous’.

For the Navy, if Cameron was right, this was a money-saving opportunity; nitre was cheap and did not decompose over time. In the following decades surgeons continued to experiment with different remedies for scurvy until, in 1840, the Admiralty decided to perform a large-scale experiment to determine once and for all the best scurvy remedy. Over the next four years the surgeons of sixty ships transporting fifteen thousand convict men from Britain and Ireland to Australia received crystallised citric acid, potassium nitrate, and lemon juice. Their instructions clearly forbade the surgeons from trying to cause scurvy during the voyage but if the disease did appear, the patients were to be divided into three groups, each group receiving one of the remedies. Of course, the surgeons often had their own ideas, and often altered, combined and varyed the doses according to their own personal favoured recipe. So, while Surgeon Deas mixed some nitre with lime juice and some with citric acid, and felt that both mixtures were useful, Alexander Bryson gave each group the remedies mixed in a glass of wine, water and sugar. After many of the convicts developed severe scurvy, Bryson finally decided that potassium nitrate was ‘objectionable’. The surgeons had come to very different conclusions about the value of potassium nitrate but the results of the experiment were clear; potassium nitrate was abandoned as useless, lemon juice was in for good.

In the mid 1970s, dental researchers – in laboratories this time, rather than on ships – began to report a strange occurrence: mixing potassium nitrate with toothpaste seemed to reduce dental sensitivity in sufferers.  More work confirmed the compound’s beneficial effects, but the scientists still admitted that they were unclear why it should work; being soluble, it seemed that it should simply dissolve in water and wash out of the teeth at first rinse.

Jump forward again to the present, and potassium nitrate is often used as the active ingredient in products for sensitive teeth. So we have come a long way in medical understanding since women like Anne Brumwich stuffed aching teeth with gunpowder soaked lint, or Victorian naval surgeons dosed their convicts with nitre in the certainty that it helped with scurvy, and yet nitre has proved persistent: these earlier ideas about potassium nitrate’s ability to reduce not only the pain of toothache, but the symptoms of scurvy – a disease so commonly experienced in the mouth and gums – are worth wondering about.


Katherine Foxhall is a Wellcome Postdoctoral Researcher in History at King’s College London. Currently working on a history of migraine, Katherine has worked in the past on the history of migrant health, maritime quarantine, and illnesses including scurvy, cholera and typhus. Her book, Health, Medicine and the Sea: Australian Voyages, c. 1815- 1860 has recently been published with Manchester University Press.

Gathering Ingredients For Early Modern Recipes/Herbal Remedies

By Jennifer Munroe

An entry from Mary Doggett’s receipt book from 1682 in The British Library for a “Water called Rosa Solis” includes a curious set of instructions, curious not so much for the way it explains how to make said water, but rather for the lengthy details about how to gather its ingredients:

“How to make ye Water called Rosa Solis to be gathered in the Month of June or July”:
Take this herb called Rosa Solis it growes in Meadows or Marshy Grounds and in no other places, it is of an herb color and grows very Low and flat to ye ground wth a long stalk in the midst wth six branches, springing out of ye root round about ye stalk, and wth a leaf herb color, and of main bredth and length; and when you gather it take heed in any case you touch no where but ye stalk when you put it up for ye vertue lys in ye leaf, and if you touch it it’s gon; lay it in a very clean basket for ye leaves of this herb is of great strength, vertue and nature…(BL Add 27466 f.2r)

While we might assume that early modern Englishwomen collected their ingredients from their own gardens or from neighboring natural areas, receipt books from the period do not typically say as much. In fact, it would have been entirely possible for women to purchase the ingredients for their receipts. This receipt makes it clear, though, that Doggett’s reader is expected to get them herself.

But what does this receipt tell us about the plant and the woman (or person) collecting it? I find it interesting, first and foremost, that while many receipts in Doggett’s book (and so many others) seem to take for granted that the reader will already know how to acquire and use (and will probably have on hand) key ingredients, this receipt does not. Instead, the reader learns not only where to find it, but also how to identify it once she traipses through the meadow or marsh where it grows. So, either this plant isn’t as common as it might seem, as it appears in countless receipt books in the period without such instruction, or Doggett provides these directions because she assumes that her reader has simply never gathered rosa solis before. After all, the warning about how to handle the plant bespeaks an attention to (critical) detail that one would presumably not require if one had actually picked and used the plant before. Otherwise, would one not already know to “take heed in any case you touch no where but ye stalk when you put it up for ye vertue lys in ye leaf, and if you touch it it’s gon”? Reiterating the restorative powers of the leaf, not the stalk, Doggett’s receipt insists at the end that the reader must lay the leaf ever so carefully in the basket after picking as well, as the “leaves of this herb is of great strength.”

Perhaps this receipt indicates more, though, than something about its user. It may tell us as well about Doggett, about her aspirations as a manuscript compiler of receipts. Doggett’s book is arguably itself an exercise in underscoring the authority and expertise of its author. The book is presented in beautifully rendered italic hand, elaborate in such a way as to mimic the care taken in preparing an illuminated manuscript. It is neatly ordered: first waters, then salves and ointments, followed by plasters, balsams, and then medicines for different parts of the body. What this book tells us is that Doggett was concerned with how it represented her as its knowledegable source. And so, when we read not to touch anywhere but the stalk, we are reminded of the care one should take while gathering, but we are also reminded that Doggett has likely tried this receipt herself, that she too has crossed the meadow or traversed the marsh in search of the rosa solis; and we should be grateful that she has spared us wasting our precious ingredient by not knowing that the virtue lies in the leaf, that she has done the experimenting for us.

Green sickness, red plants

By Helen King

I’ve been interested for a long time in green sickness, a condition affecting girls at puberty that involved menstrual suppression, often along with some sort of dietary ‘blockage’. The remedies for it, over the 400 or so years that it was recognised as a disease, raise all sorts of problems. For example, in the 19th century it was seen as a form of anaemia, so iron was prescribed. In the 17th century, before that level of knowledge of blood existed, ‘steel filings’ were often part of the remedy, and iron is a constituent of steel. So, how did they know to use steel? Or was this nothing to do with the iron content, but instead about steel being imagined as ‘cutting through’ the blockages?

Langham’s text. From . Copyright: Cardiff University, used with permission.

William Langham wrote ‘The Garden of Health’ in 1597. It was based on earlier recipe collections, and I came upon it when I was thinking about using recipes to tease out what exactly was supposed to be causing the symptoms – so, if the recipe involved plants that were clearly evacuative, then this could suggest that the cause of the disease was seen as a blockage. Langham arranged plants in simple alphabetical order, rather than arranging the material under the names of diseases; but, as part of his accessibility, he also gave a list of conditions with references to the different plant entries where the reader could find out more.

Langham gives a range of recipes for green sickness. One is packed full of ‘red’ plants –

‘seethe powder of the Keyes [i.e. the ash tree] with Betonie, red Sage, red Mynts, and Magerom [marjoram] in running water from a pottell [= 2 quarts] to a quart, and drink thereof a good draught with sugar warme morning and evening’

Elaine Hobby pointed out to me that this recipe also appears in 1677 in ‘The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight’ by ‘T.P.’ (possibly Hannah Woolley), but with ‘red Fennel’ instead of ‘red Mynts’. There was a second edition of Langham in 1633, and maybe the author used this.
So what’s all this red about? Betony, sage and marjoram often appear together in later collections as a gentle sternutatory. Red sage and betony are used against bilious attacks. Ash keys feature today on ‘wild food’ sites with the warning that they are very bitter and need to be boiled several times before eating, but what was used here was the ripe seed, dried and then reduced to powder. The ash-powder is used elsewhere for the stone (by provoking urination), jaundice and dropsy.

So maybe there’s something here about getting rid of obstructions. But to me, all this redness suggests the colour of blood, and the use of running water also makes me think that this is aimed at restoring or establishing a normal menstrual flow. How do we balance the known effects of the plants chosen, with the symbolic power of red? Comments please!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK. Her book on green sickness is  The Disease of Virgins.

To Preserve Quinces, White or Red?

By Rebecca Laroche

Wellcome Library, Manuscript 1340, Digital Image 0087

Through a current collaboration with Thomas Ward (United States Naval Academy), I have found something of interest in early modern quince preserves.[i] Across the Wellcome Library Digitised Collection, examples of recipes “To preserve quinces” evenly divide between two (or three types), “To preserve quinces red” and “To preserve quinces white” (the third category being some mixture or in-between of the two).[ii] Regularly, a white quince recipe will be on the same page as a red one, which presents an immediate choice to the preserver. In close reading, I have come to realize that this choice is about something more than color.

Setting a red recipe next to a white one, we can begin to suss out the issues, but three late seventeenth/early eighteenth century recipes provide both the red and white options within one entry and thus make the differences most apparent.  Generally, red quinces are  boiled at a “leisurely” pace (one recipe, MS 3341/009, records a four hour process,), covered, and with lower grade of sweetener (not necessarily refined sugar, even using fruit juices instead, which also added a gelling component).  White quinces are often boiled rapidly in the syrup made with double refined sugar, sometimes cooked before being added to the syrup, and, at some point determined by fruit tenderness, color change, and/or syrup thickness, the quinces are removed from the syrup to cool while the syrup continues to thicken, and then they are added again later in the process.  Much of the time making red quinces is uninterrupted, allowing for “multi-tasking,” either in or out of the kitchen.

Not necessarily so in preserving white quinces.  Not only are you often told to boil the quinces “as fast as you can uncouered” (see MSs 7818/52, 7999/10, 3341/10), which would present the danger of boiling over and burning, the added step of taking them up before they turn red requires extreme care.  One recipe even calls for “shifting” the quinces into “water ready to boil,” not once or twice, but “into seuerall such waters till they be tender (MS 2330/5).

Clearly white quinces are more difficult to make as they require extra care and a larger proportion of time spent watching the pots. Because much of this care is about anticipating the moment of color change, the implication is that the more a person makes the white quince recipe, the more aware she or he would be of signs of the oncoming change. That is, the more experienced preserver would be more prepared and his or her quinces would thus be whiter.

It follows, then, that the choice between red and white quinces has meaning beyond a color preference or even taste. Whether or not white quinces taste better than red ones is almost beside the point. If you present white quinces at the table, you signified an occasion deserving of the more “high maintenance” preserve, whereas red quinces, made at a more leisurely pace and with cheaper ingredients, are likely to be your “everyday” variety. At least the experienced cooks among your guests would appreciate the difference.

[i] I have also noted this variation with pippen preserves.

[ii] All parenthetical citations refer to the manuscript and image number accessed through the Wellcome Digitised Collection page: