Category Archives: Series: Blood

‘A Few Drops of Milk Will Do’: Breast Milk as Medicine

The traditional Madonna lactans: the breastfeeding Mary. Madonna Litta, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci © Wikimedia Commons.
The traditional Madonna lactans: the breastfeeding Mary. Madonna Litta, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci © Wikimedia Commons.

By Julia Martins

A few weeks after my baby was born, I noticed her tear ducts were blocked. Echoing Galen, the midwife suggested a few drops of breast milk to help treat and open the ducts. A few days later, the problem was solved, much to my astonishment. If you Google medical uses for breast milk, you might be surprised at the number of articles mentioning it as a treatment for ear infections, eczema, acne, eye problems, and many other conditions in babies. While most of this evidence is anecdotal, we know breast milk has antimicrobial properties, so it may indeed help.

Using breast milk as medicine is nothing new, however. Nor is it only a Western phenomenon, with human milk being used in imperial China. For centuries, medical recipes (especially those in the vernacular tradition) contended that menstrual blood in its concocted form of breast milk could be used to treat a myriad of conditions. Vernacular books published for a broad readership, such as Thomas Reynalde’s The Birth of Mankind, a 1540 adapted version of the 1513 German midwifery manual Rosengarten by Eucharius Rösslin, contained many recipes using human milk. As a general reproduction and fertility manual, Reynalde’s book also contained advice about childrearing and how to treat childhood ailments. So, when discussing the swelling of infants’ eyes, Reynalde recommended a mixture containing ‘woman’s milk’. He also suggested putting amber dissolved in breast milk inside the child’s nose.

Reynalde’s breast milk medicines for infants, used for ailments ranging from hiccups to stomach issues and sleeping problems, were not unusual. Like many entries in the book, these uses were taken from Ibn Sina’s Canon or Rhazes’ Practica Puerorum. Other early modern books contained milk in their recipes, such as John Gerard’s and John Partridge’s formulas to provoke sleep. As in The Birth of Mankind, these were books aimed at a wide readership, to be primarily used in a domestic setting.

As a readily available, free resource, breast milk was not only recommended for treating children. Since antiquity, it was thought that milk could also answer questions about what the pregnant body contained. In a passage copied from Ibn Sina, Reynalde told readers how breast milk could be used to determine the sex of the unborn child:

But if ye be desirous to know whether the conception be man or woman, then let a drop of her milk, or twain, be milked on a smooth glass or a bright knife, other [or] else on the nail of one of her fingers. And if the milk flow and spread abroad upon it by and by, then it is a woman child. But if the drop of milk continue and stand still upon that the which is milked on, then it is a sign of a man child.

Female trunk, from The Birth of Mankind. © Wellcome Collection.
Female trunk, from The Birth of Mankind. © Wellcome Collection.

Human milk could even be used to treat the one giving birth. Following a difficult birth, early modern people believed that abscesses and other problems could be healed with medicines containing human milk. Reynalde also told readers how, if the foetus died in the womb, drinking breast milk (albeit from another woman) might help someone to ‘expel the dead birth’. This belief was probably inherited from the medieval tradition, such as the Trotula, reminding us of the many continuities in the history of medicine.

‘Woman’s milk’ was not the only kind of milk used in early modern recipes. For instance, in Alessio Piemontese’s Secrets, another best-selling vernacular book published in the period, Piemontese recommended that women drink mare milk to facilitate conception. The milk from a dog just delivered could induce labour in women whose babies had died and needed to be expelled; this resembled the recipe using another woman’s milk. The symbolic association between ‘mothers’ meant that animal milk could have similar effects to human milk, working sympathetically to produce the desired goals.

In early modern medicine, humoral theory played a crucial role in understanding the body and reproduction. In its concocted form of breast milk, menstrual blood was often found in recipes published in the vernacular. Even though human milk as medicine seems to have been more prevalent among laypeople who read and wrote in the vernacular than in higher, more educated circles, such as university physicians, it is important not to trace too sharp a divide between ‘learned’ and ‘popular’ traditions, with perceptions about menstrual blood and breast milk varying widely. However, it is comforting to think of the links between Ibn Sina, 16th-century vernacular books, and what I was told as a new mother that I could do to help my baby, even if the reasons behind these recommendations have changed.

Gerard, John. Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. London: 1597.

Partridge, John. The Widdowes Treasure. London: 1595.

Piemontese, Alessio. De’ secreti del reverendo Donno Alessio Piemontese. Milan: 1559.

Rhazes, The First Treatise on Pediatrics [Practica Puerorum], translated by Samuel X. Radbill. American Journal of Diseases of Children 112.5 (1971): 369-76.

Reynalde, Thomas. The Birth of Mankind: Otherwise Named, The Woman’s Book. Edited by Elaine Hobby, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009 (originally published in 1540).

Rosslin, Eucharius. Der Swangern Frauwen und Hebammen Rosegarten. Strasbourg: 1513.

Ibn Sina, The General Principles of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine [Liber Canonis]. Translated by Mazhar H. Shah. Karachi: 1966.

The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Edited and translated by Monica Green. Philadelphia: 2001.

Julia Martins is a PhD candidate in History at King’s College London. Her thesis focuses on the translation of early modern recipes about the female body and reproduction (‘secrets of women’) from Italian into French and English. Her research is about how medical knowledge was changed as it circulated in print in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century vernacular books of secrets, and what these modifications can tell us about the way gender and the sexed body were understood in the period. Julia’s research interests are gender history, the history of medicine, and recipes literature.

Human Milk as Medicine in Imperial China: Practice or Fantasy?

By He Bian

What does milk have in common with blood? According to Kou Zongshi (fl. 1110-1117), author of Bencao yanyi (Extended Interpretations on Materia Medica), they are basically the same vital fluid produced by the female body at two critical moments in a woman’s life. While the first menstrual period signifies the maturation of reproductive power, motherhood is the consummation of that power–miraculously causing the vital fluid to flow upward as milk. After nursing ends, the flow of milk again reverses back to blood, as evident from the return of the menses.

“Human milk.” Anon. Buyi Leigong paozhi bianlan (n.p, 1591), Book 8.
“Human milk.” Anon. Buyi Leigong paozhi bianlan (n.p, 1591), Book 8.

For centuries, Kou’s comment was repeatedly quoted as the dominant theory over lactation in the realm of learned medicine. It also coincides with parallel attempts to speculate on the metaphysical foundation of sex differences in women, and the consolidation of women’s medicine (fuke) and pediatrics (erke) as medical specialties.[1]

However, Kou’s original aim was to make sense of medical recipes. In particular, he was trying to figure out why do so many recipes for eye medicine use human milk to mix up powdered mineral drugs: a practice that has parallels in different cultural contexts. Since blood is essential for the five senses to function and human milk is essentially blood, Kou reasoned, this makes it an excellent medicine for eye diseases. Another recipe that may have been on his mind is the recommendation to drink “three portions of human milk” to help with obstructed menses. It makes sense if they were considered of the same origin. Like cures like.

Let’s pause here to consider what this means. Working with Chinese materia medica texts often means untangling different strands of thought, modes of compilation and miscellaneous quotations. The entry on each substance (e.g. human milk, renru or ruzhi) often begins with a learned survey of previous literature, including passages from classical literature and histories, and ends with a large (and often unwieldy) body of recipes. The problem is that the prescribed uses of the substances in the first part do not always sit well with the recipes, which are messy, opaque, and often outright strange.

In fact, Kou Zongshi’s work could be understood as a scholar-physician’s attempt to impose order and coherence on the unruly recipes, which were becoming increasingly available in print. [2] The incongruities and tension between theory and recipes, however, allows us to follow the intricate dance between empiricism and rationalism in such texts: when did authors equate recipes with real-life experiences, and when did they treat them as exemplars of theory and formulaic principles? When did book culture begin to shape the ways in which medicines were prepared, consumed, and invented?

Back to Kou Zongshi’s ingenious, if somewhat contrived, speculation over the nature of lactation. It did not seem to have caught much attention immediately. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a growing suspicion among medical experts to discipline and curb wet nurses’ sway over childcare, and pediatric treatises abound with warnings against drunken, naughty wet nurses whose milk turns unwholesome to the infant.[3] Again, the female body’s power to nourish but also intoxicate with her transformed milk resonates with similar discourses discussed elsewhere on this blog; notably, alcoholic drinks were seen to be a bad thing that excites her passions, in contrast to ancient Roman recommendations.

In addition, the conquest of Mongols brought about increased consumption of cow and goat’s milk.[4] A leading physician active in the fourteenth century advised consuming those over human milk, which is easily “tainted with poisonous passions.” It looks like the arrival of more abundant dairy products would transform the existing pharmacopeia once and for all.

But not so simple. By the sixteenth century in China, human milk had become a “super food” of sorts, especially among elite families. Kou Zongshi’s dusty theory became a dominant trope, fanning the imagination of the female body as a machine of alchemical wonders, and her milk a sort of elixir that revitalizes the frail and depleted bodies. In the sixteenth-century encyclopedia Systematic Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu), Li Shizhen, the erudite naturalist and capable physician, criticized the excessive fetishizing of human milk. The prudent Li nevertheless included twelve “new recipes” that involve human milk as medicine. Li’s encyclopedia was first printed in 1596; soon after the turn of the century, dietary manuals began to teach people how to prepare dried milk powder at home, after collecting fresh milk from “strong women who just gave birth to boys”. Presumably, women sold their milk not as wet nurses, but directly to pharmacists (as depicted in the picture above).

So did people in imperial China consume human milk as medicine? Quite likely. But was it ubiquitous? Probably not. Recipes can be practical and fantastic, and theorists can explain and inspire. What matters is that human milk as medicine gradually came to be taken out of the context of nursing and acquired a more abstract quality as commodity.

[1] Charlotte Furth, A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History: 960–1665 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

[2] Asaf Goldschmidt, The Evolution of Chinese Medicine: Song Dynasty, 960-1200 (London ; New York: Routledge, 2009).

[3] Ping-Chen Hsiung, “To Nurse the Young: Breastfeeding and Infant Feeding in Late Imperial China,” Journal of Family History, 20, 3 (1995), pp. 217-38.

[4] Paul D. Buell, E.N. Anderson, and Charles Perry, A Soup for the Qan : Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era as Seen in Hu Sihui’s Yinshan Zhengyao, 2nd Rev. and Expanded ed. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010).

Of Quacks and Caustics

By Samantha Sandassie

Interior of Wellcome library, shelves in Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Interior of Wellcome library, shelves in
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

In 1694, surgeon William Cowper and other members of the Royal Society gathered to test a Vulnerary Powder peddled by an apothecary named John Colbatch.  The powder, Colbatch argued, was a styptic that staunched the flow of blood and allowed wounds to heal much faster.

Given the growing importance of military action in the period, with the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674) and the Nine Years’ War (1689-1697), a medicine that could help out on the battlefield was invaluable.  Practitioners were moving away from cauterizing wounds with heated instruments to stop blood loss and increasingly replacing it with tourniquets in combination with powders and liquids that could staunch wounds and accelerate the healing process. William Clowes, for example, used a styptic powder whose ingredients he guarded fiercely while Richard Wiseman used successfully the so-called “Royal Stiptick Water.”

Colbatch claimed that he did numerous animal experiments that proved his powder’s efficacy.  As he stated, “I began to make Experiments upon Dogs and other Animals, Wounding them in the most desperate manner I could contrive; and in about a Hundred Experiments that I made, I had not above five that miscarried.”[1]

London surgeons felt this too good to be true and responded with everything from polite disbelief to outright scorn.  Did Colbatch, a mere apothecary, stumble upon a revolutionary new method of treating wounds?  Or was he yet another quack on the London landscape?

William Cowper. Source: wikicommons
William Cowper. Source: wikicommons

Cowper, a noted surgeon and anatomist, decided to replicate Colbatch’s experiments to test the powder himself. In a letter published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, he noted: “THE Report of Wonderful Cures wrought by Mr. Colbatch’s Styptick Pouder, so entertained the Expectations of divers Persons, that amongst others I thought my self obliged to obtain some convincing Proofs of its Operations.”[2]

To begin, Cowper experimented on two dogs, applying Colbatch’s Vulnerary Powder to their wounds. In both cases, the dogs recovered suitably and Cowper and his colleagues were excited, their hopes raised that Colbatch had, indeed, developed a powder that could help save lives.

Keeping in mind the successful animal experiments, Cowper and his colleagues made their way to London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and applied the powder to two amputation stumps. First, that of a man who had his arm amputated above the elbow and second, that of a young teenage boy who had his leg amputated below the knee.

In both cases, Colbatch’s powder proved ineffective. A disappointed Cowper prepared his report on the unsuccessful experiment and sent it to the Royal Society. Cowper’s report in the Phil. Trans. hid nothing. Colbatch’s supposedly mild styptic powder put both patients in “extravagant pains” and upon removing the styptic and bandages, the amputation site on both patients looked as if they had been cauterized. The observers were duly horrified; Colbatch’s styptic, its function finally witnessed, was deemed a failure while Colbatch’s claims were dismissed as lies.[3]

Colbatch was furious and decried Cowper’s assessment. Indeed, as he wrote later, the experiment’s outcome must have been fabricated by jealous detractors.[4]

L0064675 Titlepage: Novum lumen chirurgicum Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Titlepage: 'Novum lumen chirurgicum: OR, A New Light of Chirurgery' 1699 A collection of tracts, chirurgical and medical, viz. I. A new light of chirurgery; or a discovery of a more safe, and speedy way of curing wounds ... II. The new light of chirurgery vindicated ... III. A physico-medical essay concerning alkaly and acid ... IV. Further considerations concerning alkaly and acid ... V. A treatise of the gout ... VI. The doctrine of acids in the cure of diseases further asserted ... VII. A relation of a ... cure of a person bitten by a viper ... / John Colbatch Published: 1699. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Titlepage: Novum lumen chirurgicum
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Writing in 1699, Colbatch claimed that he had visited the patients the day after the experiment was performed and found them both well and happy with the treatment. As he wrote, “before I was capable of speaking to him [the adult male patient], he rose up in his Bed, and prayed most heartily for me, telling me he believed no man, that ever had an Arm cut off, was so well as he.”[5]

And last, to prove that the powder really was caustic, W.W. had it tested by chymists only to discover that it consisted primarily of three inexpensive and easily obtained ingredients: Dantzic vitriol of copper (a sulfate), sugar of lead for added flavour, and a bit of dragon’s blood to dye it red.[6]

The Dantzic vitriol was likely copper sulfate, a green caustic powder consisting of copper and small amounts of iron that was beaten until it turned white.  Sugar of lead or lead acetate is a toxic water soluble compound that was historically used as a sweetener and later medically as an astringent.  Dragon’s blood, a plant-based resin, was used as a wound coagulant historically but may have been added to the recipe for aesthetic purposes.

Taken together, these ingredients could not have had the almost miraculous wound-healing effect described by its inventor. Rather, as W.W. concluded “the best Way of applying of it [the Vulnerary Powder] will easily appear to be to throw it into some nasty Puddle of Water; which by its Filth, is excused from the use of Man and Beast.”[7]

Colbatch had numerous surgeons and physicians against him.  Repeated experiments and publications questioned his medical theories and cures.  Indeed, W.W. went so far as to analyze and critique almost every cure Colbatch wrote about. Yet, none of this could ruin Colbatch’s reputation once and for all because the most important  people – the patients – were either not listening, not caring, or not believing. Despite being blacklisted by many a medical practitioner, the upstart apothecary from Worcestershire died Sir John Colbatch, a wealthy, knighted physician.

Bio: Samantha Sandassie is a historian of early modern medicine whose work focuses on surgery in seventeenth-century England.  She blogs over at Panacea and can be found on Twitter @medhistorian.

[1] John Colbatch, Novem Lumen Chirurgicum (London: printed for D. Brown, 1695), “To the Reader.”

[2] William Cowper, “An Account of some EXPERIMENTS lately made on Dogs,” Philosophical Transactions 18 (1694), 42.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Colbatch, Novum Lumen, “To the Reader.”

[5] Colbatch, A Collection of Tracts (London: printed for Dan. Brown, 1699), 70-71.

[6] Ibid., 61.

[7] Ibid., 63.

Pigeon Blood Visine?: An Early Modern Eye Wash

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Close your eyes and imagine a chicken. Now a duck. Now a turkey.

Now a pigeon.

If this little experiment has worked the way I envisioned, when you thought of a pigeon you didn’t just think of a different bird but of a different environment. You likely pictured chickens and ducks and turkeys on a farm or in a natural setting (if not on your table).

We think of pigeons, however, as urban birds, mobbing together wherever large numbers of people congregate. Some even see them as “flying rats,” nuisances that spread pestilence wherever they go (see this article for an example of the lengths cities will go to in order to control pigeon populations).

It was not always thus, however. In the early modern period and before, pigeons were highly valued birds. They were good for carrying messages and for eating, but the pigeon was also highly symbolic, representing grace, lightness, and spiritual flight. The pigeon does, after all, belong to the same family (Columbidae) as the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, pigeons were so prized that the right to keep them was reserved for monasteries and estates .

Pigeons were also often used in medieval and early modern medical recipes. The recipes usually involved pigeon dung, but I have also found a sub-strata of recipes utilizing pigeon blood to treat something called the “stroke of the eye.” Given the description in these recipes, I conjecture that the “stroke” referenced is subconjuctival hemorrhage or, put simply, a broken blood vessel in the eye.

This sort of ocular bleeding can occur from trauma or just simply from sneezing or coughing too hard. It is seldom painful.

While a broken blood vessel may sound like a relatively simple problem, the physical presentation of the condition is startling. (In fact, I would recommend NOT doing a Google Image search of this condition before going to bed. Yes, that’s from personal experience.)

James Heilman, MD. Wikimedia Commons
James Heilman, MD. Wikimedia Commons

However disturbing the sight of this condition, however, the remedy was sure to be worse.

In this anonymous medical manuscript of 1663 (Wellcome Collection MS.6812/26), for example, we are instructed to slit the vein on the wing of a pigeon and allow the blood to spurt into the patient’s eye.

For a stroke or pricke if it causeth payne:

Take a pidgeon and let hi[m] blood in one of the winges in the vein & let the blood spinne out of the veine into the eye & it will helpe you yf you use it 5 or 6 tymes.

A recipe for the same affliction from the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe (Wellcome MS7113/25) is almost identical:

For a stroke or Bruise in the Eye:

Take a Pigeon, & let her blood in the great Veine of the Wing, & let the Blood Springe out of the Veine into the Patients Eye. You must dresse it 6 or 7 times.

And again, from Lady Ayscough’s recipe book of 1692 (MS.1026/30):

For A stroke in the Eyes if there Grow pain thereby or if you be pricked in ye Eyes by any thing.
Take of pigion & let her blood in one of the veins of ye wing and let ye blood spin out of ye vein into ye eyes and it will by gods grace cure it this must be done 5 or 6 nights, at gooing to bed.

In humoral medicine, birds were associated with blood, a sanguine temperament (hot, wet) and the element of air. Because of this, we might surmise that a broken blood vessel—and the ensuing red eye—would signal an excess of blood to an early modern physician. The treatment, then, would be oppositional: the patient would need something cold, dry and earthy… like tree roots, leaves, or plants.

Since the eye itself was considered to be a phlegmatic organ (cold and wet), the blood of the pigeon would balance the humors. Buttressing this idea is the recipes’ insistence that the blood be let from the wing of the bird: the seat of airy flight would be the perfect counterbalance to the watery mucus of the eye.

The idea that a pigeon would be salutary to somebody suffering an excess of phlegm or black bile, because of its choleric and sanguine properties, is reinforced in this direction from Sir Thomas Elyot’s Castel of Helth (1541):


Be easily digested, and ar very holsom to them, which are fleumatike, or pure melancoly.*

But whatever the theoretical underpinnings of the use of pigeon’s blood to treat subconjunctival hemorrhage, the lived experience of having bird blood spurting into your eye must have been horrible. And, according to the recipes, it also would have been frequent: the directions, though short, are consistent in directing the patient to undergo the treatment between 5-7 times. By that time, the white of the eye would have returned to its healthy appearance.

Of course, the eye would have returned to normal in about that time without the treatment, too.

Which leads me to the conclusion that (c’mon, you know you were expecting this) . . . this treatment is for the birds.



*I was pointed to this reference by a note by Michael Robinson in the online version of The Diary of Samuel Pepys.