By Mark Bruck
Throughout much of early modern Europe, oils and fats derived from animals were highly valued commodities, particularly as elements to everyday medicines and remedies. Puppy oil, in particular, was considered better than most other animal fats and remained in use until the middle of the 20th century. In fact, in my pharmacy, I have a jar of puppy oil (now completely rancid fat) that dates from the beginning of the last century. Nevertheless, the puppy oil and dog fat were highly cherished for their medical properties in premodern European folk medicine.
Known by various terms, including oleum catellorum, axungia canis and pinguedo canis, the fat of animals were used to heal a variety of ailments and afflictions in early modern Europe. For instance, frog and human fat comprised the basis of the healing oil known as oleum florum Slotani. Similarly, the oil called emplastrum diabotanum was composed of fifty-five ingredients, including animal oils, pitch and wax, camphor, and minerals. An anonymous eighteenth century commentator in the Journal der Pharmacie is said to have described the concoction as the most miserable mixture. Nevertheless, early modern formal physicians and folk healers alike regularly used the fats and oils of animals as medical remedies. The remedy known as unguentum nervinum Schmidii was composed of a variety of animal fats, including those from canines, equines and humans, was used to treat localized nerve and joint pains. Puppy oil and the fat of canines figured prominently as topical remedies for muscle and joint pains, such as podagra (the gout). Taken internally, canine fat figured frequently in both folk and formal treatments for lung afflictions such as tuberculosis.
In sixteenth century France, the barber surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590) embraced the use of dog fat as a remedy for dressings and wounds, particularly those caused by arquebuses. Claiming a secret source, Paré advised that the rendering of fat be produced by processing the animals with oleum liliorum (oil of lilies), earthworms, turpentine of Venice, and French brandy. He advised that live dogs were to be boiled in the oil until the flesh loosened from the bones and then submerged in earthworms. After rendering, the remaining animal fat was to be mixed strained with white wine before being mixed with turpentine and brandy. Similarly, in seventeenth century France, the chemist Nicholas Lémery (1645-1715) noted the usefulness of the huile de petit chiens (oil of puppies) as a topical treatment for ailments of the nervous system, such as sciatica and paralysis, and in dissolving catarrhs and congestion (Figure 1).
As noted in my previous posting (see “Canine Cures”), the work of the eighteenth century healer Sébastien-François de Blanchart contains a wide variety of remedies that incorporate the use of materials derived from animals, including dogs. His manuscript book of remedies, known as “Vieux recueil de remèdes,” contains instructions on the preparation of the puppy oil, oleum catellorum. To treat foulures (muscle sprains) and sang caillé (blood coagulation), the healer recommends the oil derived from nine-days-old puppies boiled in olive oil (Figure 3). For a more effective result, and likely taste, he advises to mix in Burgundy wine. Patients should be kept warm and sweating before taking spoons full of the concoction each morning and evening.
The use of animals in popular remedies for everyday ailments figured as prominent, though largely overlooked, aspects of the history of medicine. To modern eyes, the methods of preparation are likely to offend. Nevertheless, for centuries, the human and animal connection was one that touched on everything from friendship and love to health and healing. For more on the use of dogs in remedies, please see: Lisa Smith’s “The Puppy Water and Other Early Modern Canine Recipes” from October 23, 2018.
I am most grateful to Mme Zeien curator and librarian at the Archives nationales for making the digitised document available; it was originally classified as item 423 of the 15th department of the historic section of the Institut grand-ducal in Luxembourg.