Physical or metaphorical, itches are funny things.
Physical itches, as Atul Gawande points out, may well have been a response that evolved to alert us to insects and poisonous toxins. Previously thought to be triggered by the same nerve cells that control the sensation of pain, researchers have discovered that itching actually has its own special neural pathway, hence the biologically distinctive need to scratch (what Montaigne calls “one of the sweetest gratifications of nature, and as ready at hand as any”).
Metaphorical itches, too, need to be satisfied: the itch to write, the itch to see a country, the itch (as my graduate-student knitting circle phrased it) to stitch and bitch.
But then there is “the itch infalable,” a cure for which can be found in Joanna St. John’s 1680 recipe book (Wellcome Library MS4338). If itching is one of our primal biological functions, an “infalable” itch, one that could never be conquered, sounds like pure misery. Here is the text:
For the Itch infalable
Put the 3d part of an ounce of white mercury into a qrt of spring water with an ounce of salt peter & a small handful of ordinary salt let them boyle together gently an hower &a halfe and as it boyles put in more water to keep the same quantity let the party stand naked by the fire & dab in a rag wheresoever you se any itch let it dry in & wear stil the same shirt boyle the shirt in an earthn pot that may be broke & break the bottle for tis poison.
I’ll admit that I was drawn to this recipe by the poetry of the title rather than the contents of the cure, but after taking a few self-indulgent moments to admire what a fine novel title “The Itch Infallible” would make, I began wondering about the actual malady.
With lice, fleas, and newly documented scabies prevalent, itching in the seventeenth century would be a pretty common occurrence. But these were all relatively temporary conditions that could be eliminated, or at least ameliorated, by bathing and disinfecting. What then would an “infalable” itch be?
Could it have been responsible for the one mysterious death by “Itch” recorded in John Graunt’s 1679 book, Natural and Political Observations … upon the Bills of Mortality?
The only connection I could find between the seventeenth century and any sort of persistent itching condition is a circuitous, even backwards, one: a very modern and highly debated condition known as Morgellons Disease. Morgellons was named in 2002 by a woman researching the cause of her two-year-old son’s painful itching and lesions. She examined his skin under a microscope and disovered multiple fibers. Her search into medical history yielded an anecdote told by Sir Thomas Browne in a 1674 letter about children in the Languedoc region of France, “called the Morgellons,” who grew “harsh hairs” on their backs.
Full and nuanced discussions of the debate about Morgellons Disease can be found here and here, but to summarize, those who suffer from Morgellons have an insatiable desire to scratch in order to extract what feel like bugs burrowing into their skin. A hallmark of this condition is that sufferers find fibers in the lesions—fibers they say indicate an external source of their misery.
Many medical experts, however, believe that the mysterious fibers are simply from clothes, hair, and lint, and that the source of the patients’ suffering is parasitosis, a psychosis in which people believe they have been infested with parasites. Other experts believe that Morgellons sufferers have a very real neurological condition that causes them to feel the sensation of something crawling on them.
I am in no way suggesting that a person treated using St. John’s recipe in the seventeenth century would have suffered from Morgellons or even from Browne’s “harsh hairs,” but thinking about the possibility of a psychological connection to the very real feeling of bugs crawling over or burrowing into the skin (gah–it’s hard to write that without shivering) might help us reconstruct the lived experience of this treatment .
I could easily imagine a scenario in which a person experienced a real infestation of lice or fleas or scabies and then could not stop imagining the accompanying sensation and itching. If that were the case, a rather elaborate sort of “cleansing” in which one stand naked and exposed, wounds treat and clothing burned–such as we see in St. John’s recipe–could provide a healing for the mind.
Whether or not this treatment would be healthy for the body is another question altogether: contact with mercury is toxic. According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms of mercury poisoning include vomiting, incontrollable shaking, and blindness.
And, in a bitter twist…itching.