Category Archives: Ingredients

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:

Week Plan

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.

Nicoise Salad

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

Chicken and Veg

Day time:

Snacks

Dried figs, mixed nuts, raisins, and honey and lemon water

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.

Bath Time

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.

Broth

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.

Salmon and Barley

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.

Tales from the archives: the torture of therapeutics in Rome: Galen on pigeon dung

Recently, I have noticed fewer pigeons at Cardiff station. This probably mean that there has been a cull, which even though I’m no fan of pigeons, made me feel rather melancholy. So, in honour of the humble pigeon, here is, fresh from our archives, a fab post by Caroline Petit on pigeon excrement in Galen’s recipes.


Although Galen is more than reluctant to use disgusting ingredients and remedies wherever possible (De simpl. med. ac fac., X, 1), his catalogue of simple remedies, his recipes and case histories show that animal and even human dung and urine are not absent from his therapeutic arsenal. But this is not as contradictory as it sounds, because Galen uses careful qualifications in his approach to excrements. Why, did you think he was going to spread dog’s feces all over your face? Fear not, Galen uses only non-smelling dung.

File:Fresco pigeon Oplontis.jpg
A pigeon on a Roman fresco from Oplontis. Source: Wikipedia.

Galen reports an interesting case. In the dead of night, Galen was once called to the bedside of a Roman lady (Meth. med. V, 13); she had begun spitting blood and became extremely concerned, as she had heard Galen warn people against this dangerous symptom (Rome was justifiably anxious about the Antonine plague). She believed only prompt treatment would get the better of it, and she called for him. When Galen arrived, she begged him to submit her to whatever treatment he would deem suitable to cure her; the treatment designed by Galen would make any modern patient shiver, as it sounds very drastic indeed:

“I ordered the use of a sharp clyster and rubbing, and binding around of the legs and arms as much as possible, along with a heating medication. Then, having shaved her head, I applied the medication made from the excrement of wild pigeons. After an interval of three hours, I led her to the bath and and washed her without touching her head with any oil. Then I covered her head with a well-fitting felt cloth and, according to the prevailing season, I nourished her with thick gruel alone, afterwards giving her bitter fruits. Then, when she was about to go to sleep, I gave her the medication made from vipers that had been prepared four months before, for such a medication still has the juice of the poppy in strong degree whereas, in medications that have been aged, the strength becomes less. (…) Then, at intervals I repeatedly used on her head the customary salve from thapsia. I provided total care and nourishment for the body with passive exercises, rubbings, perambulations, abstinence from baths and a moderate and succulent diet. This woman became well without the need for milk.”

The poor woman, who was certainly elegant, perhaps fashionable and accustomed to elaborate hair styles (at least this is how we usually picture Roman ladies – Galen doesn’t comment on his patient), had to endure the shaving of her head, then the prolonged application of a paste made with pigeon dung – a well-known ingredient, known for its heating and drying properties, at least since Dioscorides (Mat. med. II, 80). The rest of the treatment is strikingly strong, with several powerful heating remedies (for example thapsia, which could cause burns if used at a high dosage) and must have been difficult to endure, especially as it lasted for a number of days. But the excrement of wild pigeon catches the eye, because it belongs to the much-maligned category of ‘disgusting’ (bdelura) remedies: so why does Galen mention it so casually here, in the case of a woman who must have been more delicate than any other, and for a readership who may have been just as sensitive as this poor woman? Well, Galen explains elsewhere in book X of his treatise on simple drugs that the key thing is to have dung that doesn’t smell, in order to remove the nauseating factor. For dung does have remarkable properties. Thus some forms of dung, especially the one coming from wild pigeons, is absolutely devoid of bad smell and is a powerful, reliable remedy praised by all. For some smelly kinds of dung (as in dog’s dung), it is preferable to let it dry first, before grounding it and thus, again, removing the problem of smell. Dung is disgusting only as long as it smells of dung. But once it is transformed into a powder, a paste, or any other pharmaceutical form you can think of, it is perfectly acceptable and pretty useful, as it is easy to find and inexpensive. What’s not to like?

‘Used With Constant Success’: Animal Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Remedies, and their Success in the Beauty Industry

It’s Halloween, so it’s fitting that I’m writing about slimes and sticky oozes, though somewhat misleading. This post considers three common animal-derived medicinal ingredients found in eighteenth-century recipes. Earlier this week, Lisa Smith looked at a relatively unusual ingredient: puppies. Today’s ingredients, however–snails, honey, and asses’ milk–were staples in domestic medicine.

Although my research is on eighteenth-century domestic medicine, I also have a personal blog on lifestyle, baking, and beauty. Here we’ll explore the historical uses of these ingredients, and you can visit my blog to find out why these same ingredients are celebrities of the beauty community – I do my best to put their efficacy to the test!

One of my favourite pastimes is experimenting with skincare and makeup, and it’s intriguing that ingredients once treasured for their medicinal and beautifying properties have had resurgence in the beauty industry. A historical perspective certainly makes me think about modern cosmetics differently, especially in relation to their medicinal properties and efficacy claims.

Jennifer Sherman Roberts has written on the efficacy of an early modern pimple remedy, and the work of Michelle DiMeo, Rebecca Laroche, and Edith Snook investigate the use of animals in medicinal recipes, and cosmetic practices in early modern England[1].  

Snails:

The garden snail was one of the most used animal ingredients in eighteenth-century remedies. In my doctoral research, where I examined 5,000 recipes from 27 eighteenth-century manuscripts, I found 104 references to snails (4% of all animal ingredients).

R. Bradley, A philosophical account of the works of nature... Credit: Wellcome Library, London. 

The snail was claimed to be ‘one of the cleanest feeders in the world’,[2] and seventeenth-century physician and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that ‘the reason why they cure a consumption is this; Man being made of the slime of the earth, the slimy substance recovers him when he is wasted’.[3]

In today’s cosmetic industry, snail gel is used as a moisturiser and skin brightener (see my blog for details), but the most common use of snails in eighteenth-century recipes was in the form of a distilled water. This was prevalent remedy for respiratory conditions like consumption.

A mid-eighteenth-century recipe book belonging to the Arscott family from Tetcott, Devon has two consecutive snail water recipes. The first, titled ‘for a Consumption’, used a peck of grey snails wiped clean and distilled in both asses’ milk and red cow’s milk alongside dates, raisins, liquorish, and aniseed. A second recipe, attributed to Lady Robert Russell, noted its efficacy by claiming that she had ‘experienced good in Cough, Heatick, Heals a Sharpness in the Blood’. Lady Russell received this recipe from Dr Francis Willis (famous for treating the madness of George III).[4]

See Jennifer Sherman Robert’s post on snail waters and spa treatments.

Honey:

Honey was the most frequently cited animal-derived ingredient in my research. It was used for plasters, poultices, and ointments, and was a sweetener. Honey was used for treating swelling, cancers, ulcers, and eye complaints. ‘A poultis for a Swelling by My Aunt Dorothy Pates’, for example, used honey as a binding agent.[5] Another recipe, said to be ‘approved by the best doctars [sic]’ used a clove of garlic saturated in fine English honey and put in the ear for eight days to cure pain and restore hearing.[6]   

Hair Water from the Duchess of Marlborough using honey. Kent History Centre, U1590/C43/2, f. 75r.

Honey has long been valued for its restorative properties, and today it’s a ubiquitous ingredient in hair conditioners and skincare. It also featured in eighteenth-century hair treatments. The Duchess of Marlborough was claimed to have ‘preserved her hair good to her death’ by using a hair water created from two pounds of honey distilled with rosemary flowers and wire of the vine [grape stems?]. This hair wash was said to thicken and ‘give it a gloss’.[7] On my blog, you can see how a similar hair wash using rosemary and honey turned out!

Asses’ Milk:

Another animal-derived ingredient that has been used since ancient times is asses’ milk. It was used in the eighteenth century to treat respiratory ailments. Lisa Smith has also written about the medical uses of asses’ milk on The Sloane Letters Project.

Returning to the Arscott Family, Mrs Arscott (Thomasine) suffered from breast cancer and her husband John recorded several cancer treatments in their collection. It’s unclear from the records exactly what kind of cancer she had, but it’s evident she was in pain. Mrs Arscott tried different remedies prescribed from physicians, ranging from cardus Benedictus (thistle) to opiates.    

A Mr Ranby advised in December 1748 that she must ‘never omit Asses Milk’ in her cancer treatment (and also not omit opiates). This description is followed by a detailed account of Mrs Arscott’s experience with the treatment, which did not agree with her and she had a ‘terrible return of her complaints’.[8]  

Mrs Arscott’s treatment using artificial asses’ milk. Wellcome MS. 981, insert.

It was also common practice to create an artificial variety, and Sally Osborn has written about the creation of artificial asses’ milk. Once again, the snail proves his worth as it was used to make this mock version (more information see here). Both genuine and artificial versions of asses’ milk treated respiratory problems.

For treating a ‘hectic or inward heat’, a recipe from Dr Ratcliff found in multiple recipe collections called for snails with pearl barley and candied eringo root, boiled and strained.[9] The frequency at which both snail based and genuine asses’ milk were recorded in recipe books, alongside claims of their efficacy, is testament to the credibility of these animal ingredients.

From slime and ooze to elixir of life, animals (and their derived products) held great significance in medicine and cosmetics in the eighteenth century. The snail, honey, and asses’ milk were clearly valued for their medicinal properties, and it’s fascinating that they have renewed purpose in the beauty industry. Today’s miracle anti-aging elixirs, hair tonics, and brightening creams don’t contain revolutionary ingredients. They are in fact, old news – tried and tested since 1700!

(And earlier…)


[1] Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, ‘On Elizabeth Isham’s “Oil of Swallows”: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes’, in Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (eds.), Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 87–104; Edith Snook, ‘“The Beautifying Part of Physic”: Women’s Cosmetic Practices in Early Modern England’, Journal of Women’s History, 20, 3 (2008), pp. 10–33.

[2] As stated in M. Mascall’s late 18th–early 19th C. collection: Wellcome Library, London, MS 7875, f. 96.

[3] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis: or, the London Dispensatory (London, 1708), pp.108–9.  

[4] Arscott family, ‘Physical Reciepts [sic]’ (c. 1725–76). Wellcome Library, London, MS 981, ff. 8r.-v.

[5] Abigail Smith and others, ‘Collection of medical and cookery receipts’ (c. 1700).  Wellcome Library, London, MS 4631, f. 7r.

[6] Ibid., f. 23 v

[7] Grizel, Lady Stanhope (née Hamilton), ‘Recipe Book (culinary and medicinal)’ (1746), Stanhope of Chevening Manuscripts. Kent History Centre, U1590/C43/2, f. 75r.  

[8] Wellcome Library, London, MS 981, insert.

[8] Ibid. 53v.

The Puppy Water and Other Early Modern Canine Recipes

By Lisa Smith

At first I thought it was a joke when I read a recipe for “The Puppy Water” in a recipe collection compiled by one Mary Doggett in 1682. “Take one Young fatt puppy and put him into a flatt Still Quartered Gutts and all ye Skin upon him”, then distill it along with buttermilk, white wine, pared lemons, herbs, camphire, venus turpentine, red rosewater, fasting spittle, and eighteen pippins.

Mary Doggett, Book of Receipts, British Library MS Add 27466, f. 24r.

Although Mary Doggett’s recipe does not specify purpose, puppy water was a facial treatment – as immortalized by Jonathan Swift in his poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (1732):

There Night-gloves made of Tripsy’s Hide,
Bequeath’d by Tripsy when she dy’d,
With Puppy Water, Beauty’s Help
Distill’d from Tripsy‘s darling Whelp.

Swift also, however, refers to another canine usage: gloves made from dog’s hide. As noted in Nicholas Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1718), “little puppy dogs” (and various other animals, such as hedge-hogs, snails, foxes, moles, frogs, or earthworms) “may be made beneficial to your sick bodies”. Robert James’s entry for “Canis” in his Medicinal Dictionary (1743-5) explained that Europeans “generally abstain from Dogs Flesh, till Necessity… obliges them to use it.” But use it they did: the flesh, fat, skin and excrement could all be incorporated into medicines recommended even by renowned medical practitioners.

These remedies ranged from the foul: Culpeper’s Oleum Catellorum (Oil of Whelps) “to bath the Limbs and Muscles that have been weakened by wounds or bruises” or George Bate’s gargle for mouth ulcers and thrush that included a white dog turd (Pharmacopoeia Bateana, 1706). To the cruel: Philip Woodman suggested cutting a live puppy lengthwise through the middle and applying it hot to the head to treat a frenzy (Medicus Novissimus, 1712). To the comforting: for iliac passion (intestinal obstruction), Thomas Sydenham instructed that a live puppy should be laid to the patient’s naked belly for two or three days (Praxis Medica, 1707).

Etched image of a dog nursing three pups.
Nursing dog. Etching by C. Lewis after E. H. Landseer. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

James’ dictionary entry explained the rationale for these treatments. For example, keeping a warm puppy next to one’s colicky belly or gouty leg provided “kindly and cherishing Heat”, but it also worked sympathetically by transferring the disease into the animal instead.[1] Having a dog lick one’s wounds and ulcers could cure them more quickly. The fat of the dog was thought to be better externally than any other animal fat, owing to its penetrating quality, and the drippings could be eaten to treat lung problems or epilepsy. Turned into gloves, the skin of the dog would reflect summer sun; as a piece of leather, it could protect gouty or arthritic legs from cold. Dog dung, being hot and acrid, might treat internal bleeding or toothache.

James did not mention “The Puppy Water” itself. However, for that we might look to the ancient Greeks whom he did discuss. According to Hippocrates, “the Flesh of Dogs is of a heating, drying, and corroborating Nature… whereas that of whelps is of a moistening, lubricating Quality.” The other ingredients in the recipe point to a similar use as the puppy: pippins were moistening and good against inflammation; fumitory and agrimony treated diseases of Saturn (such as old age) and were strengthening and cleansing; plantain firmed the sinews and helped skin problems. Just the thing for a face wash!


[1] The evidence for this is dubious. James recounted the case of a patient in 1742 being salivated (by mercury). When a visitor arrived, the patient put aside his basin filled with his saliva, which his dog proceeded to drink. Within ten hours, the dog suffered from convulsions and died.

This post first appeared at the now-defunct, but much missed, Wonders and Marvels blog in May 2012.