Category Archives: Remedies

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.