Category Archives: Experimentation

Ancient Cures for Asthma: Do They Really Work?

By Joanna Cunningham, as part of the Undergraduate Series

Find out more about ancient ideas on asthma, and whether the remedies that ancient physicians used actually work!

Asthma and Its Ancient Background

Asthma is an affliction of the lungs which numerous ancient physicians discussed in their writings. It was first mentioned in Homer’s works (Iliad, book 10) when men gasped for air in the moment of death. One of the Hippocratic authors was the ‘first physician to understand the relationship between the environment and respiratory ailments’ (Cserháti 2004, 248; Ryan 1793, 62), discussing cold air as a cause for asthma. However, his understanding is questionable, as he associated asthma with epilepsy and hunchbacks (On Airs, Waters and Places, 3). Galen referenced asthma over 70 times in his books (Jackson 2009, 23), but the extent of these ancient men’s understanding of asthma as a separate affliction is questionable; they make no distinction between different types of asthma (cardiac or bronchial). Instead, the Greek word asthma is used to describe the general symptoms of dyspnoea (Stolkind 1933, 37; Frea 2011).

Nevertheless, Caelius Aurelianus gave ‘a better description of bronchial asthma as a distinct disease’ than earlier physicians (Stolkind 1933, 37), and Aretaeus documented the earliest known description of the definition we use today; breathing difficulties after exercise. Therefore, we can see how the ancient understanding of asthma changed over time.

Ancient Remedies

Ancient medicinal techniques have been adapted throughout the centuries, informing modern medicine. Naturally, we are so caught up in the technology of modern medicine that we forget the routes of these discoveries. However, whether these original remedies work is something I was curious to discover. Therefore, I journeyed back in time to see whether myself, as a modern-day asthma sufferer, would have survived an ancient physician’s advice.

Ancient remedies for asthma mostly focused upon loosening the humours. There were the more dangerous and vile remedies, including drinking animal blood, eating rabbit fat and fox lungs, inhaling or consuming numerous herbs and plants, for example, coltsfoot, hellebore and hyssop (Dioscorides De Materia Medica 2.41, 2.30), blood-letting, cupping, and even surgery (Nutton 2004, 56)! However, there were just as many feasible remedies to try, including eating raisins, dried figs, vegetables, barley, capers, bread, and cake, alongside steaming, baths, wet compresses, and moderate helpings of wine with dinner (Jackson 2009, 16, 33; Stolkind 1933, 37; Sanders 2007, 73); certainly a contrast to the more gory options!

My Body on Modern Asthma Medication

My current asthma medication consists of a brown inhaler twice a day, and a blue inhaler when breathless.

On a weekly basis, I take part in numerous extra-curricular activities, including cheerleading and dance, which consist of practising our routine and performing full-outs (performing the routine as you would at the competition), with high energy stunts and bursts of energy throughout. Usually, I cope to a certain point, however, with vigorous exercise, I quickly become short of breath, and anxious about my breathing. So, let’s see how my body copes with the ancient remedies, alongside my inhaler…

My Plan

From my research, I devised the plan below, with the ancient remedies highlighted in red:

© Joanna Cunningham

This plan varied depending on what I could buy in the shop, what extra rehearsals I had, and how much time I had that day.

My Body Using Ancient Remedies

Day 1

Breakfast: Porridge with Nutella, tea.

Lunch: Niçoise salad.

© Joanna Cunningham

Dinner: Chicken thigh fillets, roasted vegetables, glass of red wine.

© Joanna Cunningham

Day time:

© Joanna Cunningham

Bed time: Warm flannel on chest, arm massage.

Exercise: Dance (8-9.30pm) – my heart rate increased, I was sweating, and my breathing became rapid and difficult.

Findings: My breathing was no different to usual; I became rapidly out of breath during dance. However, after only one day, I cannot discredit these ancient cures just yet…

Day 2

Breakfast: 1 toast, with avocado and scrambled egg, tea.

Lunch: Niçoise salad, honey and lemon water, piece of birthday cake.

Dinner: Chicken, roasted vegetables, glass of wine, peanut m&ms.

Snacks: Honey and lemon water, and finished the snacks from the bowl yesterday. I dislike the figs, however, as with any medicine, you take it regardless.

Day time: 10 minute steam.

Bed time: Warm flannel on chest, arm massage, lavender-scented bath.

© Joanna Cunningham

Exercise: Dance (8-9.30pm) – same as yesterday.

Findings: My breathing recovery time was speedier than usual, but I’m sure this was either psychological, or by chance.

Day 3

Breakfast: 2 toast, 2 poached eggs (I didn’t finish this), tea.

Lunch: Vegetable and barley broth.

© Joanna Cunningham

Dinner: Chicken, roasted vegetables, glass of wine.

Snacks: A mini-roll, lemon and honey water.

Day time: Sing-along to my favourite playlist.

Bed time: Wet flannel on chest.

Exercise: Cheerleading (3-5pm)/Dance (9.30-10.30pm) – I sweated, and was a little out of breath.

Findings: My breathing was difficult by the end of each routine, but my recovery time was great!

Day 4

Meals: I was very ill, so didn’t eat anything.

Day time: Arm massage, 10 minute steam.

Bed time: Bath, wet flannel on chest.

Day 5

Breakfast: Toast with scrambled eggs.

Lunch: Vegetable and barley broth.

Dinner: Salmon, barley, asparagus, broccoli, glass of wine.

© Joanna Cunningham

Snacks: Mixed nuts, raisins and figs.

Day time: Another sing-along.

Bed time: Wet flannel on chest, arm massage, 10 minute steam.

Exercise: Cheerleading/Dance Showcase (6-8pm) – 3 full-outs of each routine.

Findings: After each run through, I felt out of breath, however, I recovered quickly.

What My Findings Have Shown Me…

My findings have shown me that these ancient techniques really do work, as my recovery time seemed to improve throughout the week. However, could this simply be a trick of the mind? Or could it just be that a relatively healthy life-style, ensuring to take care of one’s body, works wonders? In reality, only by the 16th century were doctors able to identify and diagnose asthma, and only sometimes able to treat it successfully (Hicks 2006, 30). I think I’ll stick to my inhaler for the foreseeable future, but I see no harm in ensuring to maintain a healthy lifestyle, minus the ancient addition of copious glasses of wine!


My name is Joanna Cunningham, I am 21, and I am currently in my final year at Cardiff University, studying Ancient and Medieval History. I am a cat lover and sushi fanatic, and have always been a keen writer. After writing my ancient asthma cures blog post for my second year Greek and Roman medicine module, I was totally inspired. Since this assignment, I have started up my own blog focusing on lifestyle, fashion, beauty, food, productivity, and travel (you can find  it following this link), and I am now looking to start a career in content writing, copywriting, and journalism, as this is what I am truly passionate about.

Alchemical Recipes in the AlchemEast Project

By Matteo Martelli

What makes a recipe alchemical? Its inclusion in an alchemical treatise, one might suggest. Indeed, naïve as it may sound, such a simple answer opens an interesting perspective from which to look at the ancient alchemical tradition.

The earliest alchemical writings produced in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1st-2nd c. AD) include recipes that describe a variety of techniques for dyeing and manipulating the natural world – a spectrum of practices that goes far beyond simple attempts to produce gold out of ‘vile’ metals. Some of these techniques, ancient authors claim, were inherited from the Egyptian or Babylonian tradition; others reached Byzantium or Baghdad, often through translations of Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic.

This long-lasting tradition is as fluid as the boundaries of ancient alchemy. By mapping the specific practices and recipes detailed in each alchemical work, it will be possible to investigate changing ideas of alchemy over time as well as how these ideas responded to specific technological settings. On top of that, it will also be possible to follow the trajectories of single recipes which moved across works written in different languages or pertaining to different disciplines, such as medicine or natural philosophy.

Cinnabar (from the Monte Amiata mine, Tuscany) and metallic mercury

But let’s take an example from a set of texts that are being investigated in the framework of the ERC project AlchemEast, acronym for “Alchemy in the Making From ancient Babylonia via Graeco-Roman Egypt into the Byzantine, Syriac and Arabic traditions (1500 BCE – 1000 AD)”. Ancient natural philosophers and physicians recorded specific techniques for extracting mercury from cinnabar, its natural ore.

In his book On stones, Theophrastus, successor of Aristotle as head of the Lyceum, explained that it is possible to produce mercury by grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a copper mortar with a copper pestle.[1] The same procedure is described by Pliny the Elder, in book 32 of his Natural History, where the medical uses of minerals – mercury included! – are illustrated (NH 32.123).

Modern chemists noticed that these accounts actually described a mechano-chemical reaction between copper and cinnabar, a mercury sulfide: copper would react with sulfur, thus liberating free metallic mercury (chemically speaking, a redox reaction).[2] With the assistance of Lucia Maini and Massimo Gandolfi, two chemists of the AlchemEast team, we did replicate the technique with some adjustments. Rather than using a copper mortar – which proved to be very difficult to find in the shops that supply chemical labs today! – we decided to use a ceramic mortar where to grind pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder.

Pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder in a ceramic mortar

After grinding the mixture for a while, we were actually able to produce a layer of blackish powder (a mixture of metacinnabar and copper sulfide) on which a few drops of ‘dirty’ mercury were moving.

Mercury “floating” on a blackish layer of residues

The same procedure is described in ancient alchemical texts as well. The Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd-4th century AD) credits legendary figures, such as Maria the Jewess or Chymes, the eponymous hero of alchemy (called chymeia in Antiquity), with the use of similar technique for grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a lead or tin mortar.[3] Different metals were therefore used. In the lab, we actually tried to use tin rather than copper powder, thus obtaining a shiny mercury-tin amalgam.

Mercury-tin amalgam

We may preliminarily observe how this extraction technique was a kind of transdisciplinary know-how, shared by experts in different fields. A certain degree of variation is detectable in alchemical texts, which mention various metals. Moreover, ancient alchemists believed that mercury could be extracted from any metallic (or even mineral) body:  did this idea in some way depend on the empirical evidence they tried to conceptualize when treating cinnabar with a variety of metals?

This kind of questions are at the basis of the AlchemEast project, which explores ancient recipes from a double angle: as textual units that travelled over time and space; as invaluable windows on a wide spectrum of real practices and techniques. Textual criticism, replications, and historical investigations are critical keys to unlock ancient alchemical sources, from Babylonian tablets to Greek, Syriac and Arabic manuscripts.  This post is only a first, tentative attempt to illustrate how we applied this method, a preliminary result of our investigation, which, needless to say, is still “in the making.” We plan to continue keeping you posted in the following months.


[1] David E. Eichholz, Theophrastus, De Lapidibus, edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 81.
[2] Lazlo Takacs, “Quicksilver from Cinnabar. The First Documented Mechanochemical Reaction?” JOM. Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, 52 (2000): 12-13.
[3] Marcelin Berthelot and Charles-Émile Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris: G. Steinheil, 1887-1888), vol. 2, 172. Part of Zosimus’ writings is only preserved in Syriac translation, where one finds further interesting details: cinnabar must be ground in the sun; copper filings are added to cinnabar and vinegar before grinding. The Syriac books of Zosimus will be published within the AlchemEast project.


The “Gentle Heat” of Boerhaave’s Little Furnace

By Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen

Ruben Verwaal is curator of the historical collections at Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, and at the Museum for Communication in The Hague. He obtained his PhD in June 2018 with a thesis on the role of bodily fluids in eighteenth-century chemistry. Marieke Hendriksen is a postdoctoral researcher on the Artechne Project at Utrecht University and a long-time contributor to The Recipes Project. She specializes in the material culture of science and art in the long eighteenth century. Ruben and Marieke share an obsession with an eighteenth-century object that has since disappeared: a small chemical furnace.

With the introduction of chemistry into the university curriculum in the late seventeenth century, new practical needs arose for students  such as being able to perform experiments. Would it be possible to build a chemical furnace that provides a gentle heat, yields no smoke, and is safe for students to use? Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738) believed he found the perfect solution in, what came to be called, Boerhaave’s little furnace.

Portrait of Herman Boerhaave by Cornelis Troost, c. 1730.

Boerhaave was professor of medicine, botany and chemistry at Leiden University in the early 18th century.[1] Instead of starting with the most difficult experiments with metals and minerals, he was convinced that students were better off when they learned the techniques of through simpler processes, such as distilling leaves and flowers, and fermenting bodily fluids. But most chemical laboratories were equipped with elaborate devices too complicated for freshmen students, who in the eighteenth century could be as young as fourteen. Moreover, the brick-build furnaces were designed to create high temperatures, in which small and delicate materials like rosemary leaves would burn instantly.[2] Boerhaave hence needed a device that was low-cost, user-friendly, and would provide a gentle heat.

The plan for the oven, • H. Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae, Quae Anniversario Labore Docuit in Publicis, Privatisque Scholis, (Leiden 1732).

A small wooden oven was the answer. Boerhaave claimed he had designed this type of furnace when he himself was studying chemistry in the 1690s. He opened the chapter on instruments in his chemistry textbook with the words: “I shall begin with my simplest furnace; which I invented forty years ago, when I practiced chemistry in no large study, where there was only one little chimney, and where I required several furnaces at once.”[3]

Woman at the Virginal and stove under her feet, by Jan Miense Molenaer, 1630-1640. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This kind of device was probably inspired by ordinary foot stoves. These little stoves, also known as foot warmers, were very popular in the Dutch Republic. Coming in a wide variety of shapes (square, octagonal, cylinder), these stoves often feature in books and paintings. Filled with glowing coals or peat, women placed the little stoves under their robes or blankets to keep warm.[4] Many foot stoves were equipped with a wire bail handle for lifting and easy transportation. Such stoves were used in carriages, sleighs, at home and in church to keep one’s feet warm. This ordinary foot warmer got new applications too, namely as tea and coffee stove,   and we suspect it was the model for the ‘simplest furnace’ in the Leiden chemical laboratory.

Woman carrying a little stove, Harmen ter Borch, 1648–1677. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The gentle heat produced by Boerhaave’s small oven proved very useful in performing all kinds of chemical experiments. Take rosemary, for example, the evergreen aromatic shrub. Distilled atop a “violent fire”, it would have been turned to flame, smoke, and ashes. But when rosemary instead was distilled at “summer-heat” (approx. 85º F), the mild operation would instead reveal the most volatile, fragrant and aromatic part of the plant ordinarily exhaled in summer. The same process could be applied to Angelica, basil, and all other aromatic plants.

Students in the Leiden laboratory, in Herman Boerhaave, Institutiones et experimenta chemiae (‘Paris’, 1724). Ghent University Library.

Boerhaave, in other words, attributed the success of his device to one’s control over gentle heat. Whenever the wooden oven was filled with hot pieces of coal or Dutch turf that was no longer smoking, it established a constant and moderate heat that could be kept up to 24 hours. As such, the instrument was perfect for students to perform all kinds of heating processes and distillations. In fact, he was so excited about this apparatus, that he claimed that “I believe eggs may be hatched by it”.[5]

Was Boerhaave’s little furnace really that user-friendly and effective as he claimed it was? We checked it out by recreating Boerhaave’s stove and performing experiments with it. Check out our next blog to entry to find out whether we succeeded!

Creating an oven from two old stoves… to be continued!

References:

[1] More on Boerhaave, see Marieke Hendriksen, “Boerhaave’s Mineral Chemistry and Its Influence on Eighteenth-Century Pharmacy in the Netherlands and England”, Ambix(2018) and Ruben Verwaal, “The Nature of Blood: Debating Haematology and Blood Chemistry in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Republic”, Early Science and Medicine(2017).

[2] Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae (Leiden:  Isaac Severinus, 1732), vol 2, experiment 1.

[3] Ibid., vol 1.

[4] Le Francq van Berkhey,Natuurlyke historie van Holland (Amsterdam: Yntema and Tieboel, 1769–1778), vol. 3, 706-707, 1200.

[5] Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae, vol 1.

HEAT! A Recipes Project Thematic Series

Astronomy- the Earth and the sun during summer in the Northern hemisphere. Wellcome Collection.

As humans, we want to control heat. We want to create heat, temper or even extinguish it, depending on context and purpose. We have a very limited temperature range at which we are comfortable (some microbes and bacteria can survive temperatures as low as -20C and as high as 130C), so we spend an incredible amount of time managing heat, whether it is our body temperature or that of our homes, offices, laboratories, cars, or food.

When we started planning this series of blog posts in early May, we could not have suspected how appropriate the theme would feel by now. While much of northwestern Europe has not seen rain in weeks and is sighing under a heatwave with temperatures rising to 37C/98F, we have fled to airconditioned spaces to edit the posts. Climate-wise, heat is seasonal in these regions, but it has always played an important role in recipes year-round, all around the world, from antiquity to the present day, in fields as diverse as alchemy, chemistry, art, cooking, medicine, and personal grooming.

The common denominators of heat in all these realms are that it is either internal – emanating from the human body – or external, naturally occurring from the sun, thunder, or lava, or man-made through friction or fire. In the posts in this series, we will see a wide variety of attempts to control these different kinds of heat through recipes and instructions.

Managing natural heat: Venice turpentine is a thick paste (aka sticky mess) at room temperature, but becomes fluid around 25C, and nicely mixes into the rest of the varnish ingredients when left out in the sun. Photo: Marieke Hendriksen

Some of our authors recreate such attempts by reconstructing experiments outlined in historical art technical and chemical sources. Indra Kneepkens recounts how she discovered through reconstruction research that sometimes for a recipe to make sense, it should not only be followed to the letter, but also be read between the lines. Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen use their experiments with two reconstructions of small chemical ovens to reflect on the role of experimental heat in the development of theories on the nature of life in the eighteenth century. Working in a similar vein but with culinary recipes, Marissa Nicosia, from Cooking the Archive, examines the problem of heat control in her recipe recreation adventures, outlining the challenges of translating cooking instructions meant for the early modern hearth to the modern gas stove.

The four elements, four qualities, four humours, four seasons, and four ages of man. Airbrush by Lois Hague, 1991. Wellcome Collection.

Other authors in the series took our invitation as an opportunity to investigate heat in medical theories across time and place. Aileen Das kicks off this series by arguing that heat occupied a central place in ancient Greek, Roman and medieval Islamicate theories about the human body and its care. Taking on the smelly problem of perspiration and body odor, Cari Casteel reminds us that this issue is as old as mankind and offers several remedies from Roman authors.  Catherine Rider, on the other hand, examines notions of heat in fertility remedies in medieval England, noting that, whilst popular, heat-based treatments (to either increase or reduce heat in the body) were not the only kind of fertility aid available to English couples. The series concludes with two posts focused on fever and disease. Writing on in Late Imperial China, Marta Hanson introduces us to ideas of fever in Chinese medicine. Finally, Nukhet Varlik turns our attention to the ambiguities inherent in early modern taxonomies of infection diseases, exploring fever as a symptom and as a disease category.

We’ve had a great time editing this series – hope you enjoy reading the posts wherever you are. Happy summer and stay cool!

Marieke Hendriksen and Elaine Leong

P.s. We were so inspired by our contributors’ posts that we’ve decided to dedicate the December issue to (you guessed it) COLD!. If you’re interested in joining the conversation, send a short pitch to recipes@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de.