By Lisa Smith
In the hunt for good health, early modern sick people often recorded the prescriptions given to them by doctors, particularly if the remedy was useful or came from a famous source. Sir Hans Sloane was one of the best known physicians in early eighteenth-century London–as well as a collector and natural philosopher, whose correspondence is being put online here. Sloane himself collected recipe books in search of knowledge, but his patients also sometimes recorded his medical advice for later reference. The Arscott Family’s book of “Physical Receipts”, c. 1730-1776 (Wellcome Library, London, MS 981), for example, contains three recipes attributed to Sloane, which provides snippets of information about his medical practice.
Although Sloane was best known for his botanical expertise and promotion of treatments such as Peruvian Bark or chocolate, the Arscott family recipes show a mixture of chemical, animal and herbal remedies. The treatment for worms (f. 129), for example, combined a mixture of elixir proprietatis and spirit. salis dulcis in either white wine or tea. Together, these aimed to sweeten the blood, strengthen the nerves and fortify the stomach.
The pleurisy remedy (f. 156) included pennyroyal water, white wine and “2 small Balls of a sound stone horse”—or, dung from a horse that still had its testicles. This was to be steeped for an hour, then strained. (Apparently this weakened the taste of the dung.) This delicious liquor would keep for three days. Are you tempted? Because the dose was a “large Chocolate Dish fasting in the morning and at 4 in the Afternoon”. “If the Stomach will bear it” (and whose wouldn’t?), the patient was to take the remedy for four to six days in a row. In this remedy, the dung was the most powerful ingredient, as it was considered a sudorific (causing sweat) and resolvent (reducing inflammation) that would aid asthma, colic, inflamed lungs, and pleurisies.
Sloane, of course, was especially known for his eye remedy, which he made public knowledge in 1745 when he published An Account of a most efficacious medicine for soreness, weakness, and several other distempers of the eyes. But how close to the published remedy was the Arscott version? Fortunately, the most detailed of the three recipes is “Sr Hans Sloane’s Direction for my Aunt Walroud in ye Year 1730–when she perceiv’d a Cataract growing in one of her Eyes” (ff.79-80).
Although there are measurements and preparation details, just like a recipe, it was also a summary of Sloane’s successful medical advice to Mrs Walroud. Of course, what early modern patients deemed success in a treatment differs from our modern concept. For Mrs Walroud, it was enough that after she started the treatment at the age of 67, her eyes did not get any worse for ten years and “she could write & read tolerably well”. When she died at the age of 83, she still had some of her sight.
The Arscott instructions begin by recommending that the sufferer have nine ounces of blood taken from the arm and a blister applied behind the ears. Next, take a conserve of rosemary flowers, pulvis ad guttetam (ground human skull mixed with various herbs), eyebright, millipedes, fennel seed and peony syrup. Last, the patient was to drink a julap (medicine mixed with alcohol) of black cherry water, fennel water, compound peony water, compound spirit of lavender, sal volat oleos and sugar. Mrs Walroud took both twice daily and kept a “perpetual Blister between her shoulders”.
One crucial difference between Sloane’s published remedy and the Arscott one is that no mention is made in Mrs Walroud’s treatment of using an ointment made of tutty (oxide of zinc), lapis haematites, aloes, prepared pearl and viper’s grease. Three possibilities for the ointment’s absence occur to me.
- The Arscott family may have simply assumed that the listed directions were intended to accompany the purchase of Sloane’s ointment and didn’t specify something so obvious.
- The reference to using the ointment was lost when the instructions had been passed between family members.
- Or, Sloane did not always prescribe the ointment.
The remaining directions, though, do have overlaps. In his Account, Sloane prescribed drinking a medicine that also contained rosemary flowers, pulvis ad guttetam and eyebright—though he included more ingredients: betony, sage, wild valerian root and castor. This was to be followed by a tea (rather than julap) with drops of compound spirit of lavender and sal volat oleos. In this case, it was the Arscott version that included extra ingredients.
The type of bleeding in the Account was also slightly different than Mrs Walroud’s, with the recommendation that six ounces of blood be taken either from the temples using leeches or by cupping at the shoulders. Sloane’s eye remedy was supposed to be useful for many types of problems, he did not prescribe it exactly the same each time. Variations were possible, according to the patient and the problem.
The Arscott recipes suggest not only what advice from Sloane the family had found most useful, but what sorts of remedies Sloane might prescribe to his patients. But whatever Mrs Walroud’s rave review, the next time I suffer from eye strain at the computer, I won’t be reaching for Sloane’s drink with pulvis ad guttetam and millipedes in a hurry.
An earlier version of this post first appeared at The Sloane Letters Blog.