Recipes for Curing Syphilis from Colonial Mexico

By Heather R. Peterson, Assistant Professor of History University of South Carolina, Aiken

File:DürerSyphilis1496.jpg
Syphilitic man attributed to Albrecht Dürer (1496) Credit Wiki Commons

While there is debate about the origins of syphilis, most Spanish doctors in the sixteenth century followed the physician Nicolas de Monardes in believing it to be of New World origin. Because the disease had appeared and spread so suddenly, Albrecht Dürer and others supposed that the new disease was caused by an astrological conjunction. But Monardes pinpointed the moment of European transmission to Columbus’s return voyage. He supposed that there must have been sexual concourse between the Indians Columbus brought back and all of the armies of Europe who were assembled in Naples; they then spread the disease throughout Europe.[1]

Confronted with curing this new disease, Spanish doctors looked to New World medicinal herbs arguing that where God had planted the seed of contagion, he would also plant the remedy. Eager to understand the new pharmacopeia the Crown sent doctors, such as Francisco Hernandez, and included questions regarding local herbs and cures in the Relaciones geographicas, an ambitious survey of the lands and peoples in the Spanish realms (1580). While the reports identified a number of local cures for syphilis, such as chupirini, which apparently caused the genitals to go on fire, or the herbs administered by female doctors in Oaxaca chinanteca and matlacaptl, only mechoacán, a powerful emetic became a staple part of the Spanish pharmacopeia.[2]

File:A three-headed eagle in a crowned alchemical flask, represen Wellcome V0025636.jpg
An alchemist’s flask decorated with a three-headed eagle representing mercury sublimated three times. Splendor solis, attributed to Salomon Trismosin (1532). Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Many young doctors also made the voyage, hoping to capitalize on first hand experience of native cures. In his 1567 treatise, Pedro Arias de Benavides touted the New World origins of his cure for syphilis, which he claimed to have practiced and “perfected” during an eight-year stay in New Spain. The secret to Arias’s cure was mercury, the alchemists’ prima materia, which he argued opened the channels of the body to receive the herbs and oils. Arias had first witnessed a mercury cure in Salamanca, but claims that his cure was an improvement over the first, which left the cleric “cured” but missing four teeth. Though he claimed it was a New World cure, Arias’ recipe involved items such as theriac (which contained opiates from the Near East), pork fat, and three unguents, two of which refer to regions or places in Spain “aragon” and “dealtea” (de Altea contained fenugreek, a root from India that was probably introduced to Spain under the Moors) suggesting the transfer of pharmaceuticals went both directions. [3] What follows is a transcription of Arias’s recipe.

Doctor Pedro Arias de Benavides’s cure for Morbo Galico (1567)

Mix three quarts of mercury, weighing a mark, with theriac and beat it in the mortar until it is “dead,” which you will know because it does not return to mix although you throw a drop of oil in the mortar, and thus being well mortified, take the mixture from there, and beat six ounces of pork fat without salt, very ground up, and cleaned of all the little veins and nerves that it has, and this being well ground, return to incorporate it with the theriac and the mercury, and leave it there for fifteen minutes.

I have for certain that the theriac quits the harm of the mercury, for the following, because the teeth stay very firm and whiter than before (!) and [patients] are able to chew after the cure, because it does not impede the teeth, because this cure expels [the humors] through the stool and urine. This being so copious that there are men who will urinate thirty or forty times in a day, and it stinks so much that there is not a person who does not suffer from the stench of the urine.

Then in two days I give them one ounce of the unguent “macieton” and another ounce of “aragon” and another of “dialtea.” Later I would incorporate all of these unguents, and let them sit for two days, and after this time, I threw in four ounces of ash of vine shoot and another half of mastic, and another half of incense, and one clove, and another cinnamon, all well sifted, and oil of berry and of chamomile, of each one ounce, and three of oil of brick. And if you want to fortify this unguent for the more robust, throw in a half-dram of “euforbio” but if it is during a hot season I do not throw in any. This unguent has the property that it may go bad later, because all the things that are in it are good and noble and are incorporated, they make a good operation, as will be seen by whomever experiments with it.

Arias did not think that the mercury was a medicine in itself, but that it opened the channels of the body for the real medicine: the mixture of herbs. He argued that bubos was caused by an abundance of melancholy in the body, and noted that though it was normally spread by concourse with “unclean women” it could also arise from a corruption of the humors in the body, as must have been the case for the first person to have the illness. This sort of bubos, he claims to have seen among “very honored clerics, who could not be doubted,” and he sought to restore their honor from suspicion.

[1] Nicolás Monardes, Primera y Segunda y Tercera Partes de la Historia Medicinal de las Cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven en Medicina (Sevilla: Alonso de Escrivano, 1574), 13-13v.

[2] Anonimo, Relaciones Geográficas de la Díocesis de Michoacán Papeles de Nueva España (Guadalajara 1958), 12, 57. Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, ed. Relaciones Gegráficas de la Diócesis de Oaxaca vol. Tomo IV, Papeles de Nueva España (Madrid La Real Casa: Paseo de San Vicente núm 20, 1905), Atlatlauca y Malinaltepec, Item 17, pp. 172-73.

[3] For a recipe for unguent of de Altea see: http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/journals/ajp1885/11-mex-prep.html  For the recipe for theriace see the list of ingredients for the Amsterdammer Apotheek (1683) on: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theriac

[4] See the list of ingredients for the Amsterdammer Apotheek (1683) on: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theriac

 


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