Category Archives: Medicine

Returning the wandering womb with “fetid and rank smells”

By Dr. Amy Kenny

When prescribing curatives for a wandering womb, early modern medical practitioners regularly propose pungent materials to return the womb to its rightful place in the abdomen.  Medical manuals from the period are rife with tales of the womb becoming dislodged and wandering throughout the body.  Monthly shedding and regular intercourse were often recommended for women to release gratuitous female seed and prevent humoral clogging.  Without shedding this excess, the womb could travel throughout the body, sometimes as far north as the throat, or as far south as the knees.  If its “ligaments are loose, and it falls down by its own weight,” English physician Nicholas Culpeper warned, or it could wander north, producing a choking sensation and syncope, aptly labeled suffocation of the mother.[1]  Once the womb was out of place, reeking elements were often recommended by medical practitioners to coax the womb back to its proper location in the body.

Renowned French surgeon Ambroise Paré suggests physicians apply “fetid and rank smells” to the nostrils, such as the “snuff of a tallow candle when it is blown out, with the fume of bird’s feathers, especially partridges or woodcocks, of man’ hair, or goat’s hair, of old leather, of horse-hoofs, and such like things burned, whose noisome or offensive savor the womb avoiding, doth return unto its own place or seat again.”[2]  The Compleat Midwives Practice proposes “fomentations are also very necessary, made with the decorations of broom, wild cucumbers, flowers of chamomile, melilla, with origin, cumin, fennel, [and] anise-seed.”[3]  A Rich Closet of Physical Secrets swears by “a bath made of mugwort, flea-bane, juniper, camphire, and wormwood, boiled in water,”[4] and physician James Rüff advises “castoreum, galbanum dissolved in vinegar, of each half an ounce; brimstone one ounce” to apply to the nose and the woman’s genitals.[5]  This is merely a sampling of the recipes prescribed for the wandering womb, but offers a microcosm for popular treatments as most call for aromatic materials amongst the ingredients.

Fig. 1. Treatment of prolapse of uterus, 1559. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Specifically, herbal remedies were often administered via a pessary, or suppository, at the neck of the vagina to fumigate any menstrual or humoral excess, causing the womb to shift locations.  Paré recommends a pessary full of “sweet and aromatic fumigations” using cinnamon, aloes, labdanum, benzoin, thyme, pepper, cloves, lavender, calamint, mugwort, penny-royal, nutmeg, musk, and amber.[6]  This image from 1559 (fig. 1) shows a practitioner placing a pomegranate shaped pessary on a woman with a prolapsed uterus.  An apple-shaped pessary can also be seen amongst French surgeon Jacques Guillemeau’s medical tools (fig. 2). Pessaries were often shaped like pears, apples, or pomegranates and could be administered by a medical practitioner or the woman herself.  Herbal remedies such as those placed in pessaries were thought to offer a purgative heat to release excess phlegmatic humors, returning the womb to its original place by humoral fumigation.

An Apple-shaped pessary with central canal, from Jacques Guillemeau, Le chirurgie Françoise, 1594. Credit: Wellcome Collection

Why use smelly materials to cajole the womb back to its original location within the body?  Why not entice it by other means?  The womb, early modern medicine tells us, “will in a manner descend or arise unto any sweet smell and from any thing that is noisome.”[7]  Able to detect smells and determine their quality, the womb garnered a sympathy with the nose unlike that of other organs.  It adopted the nose’s olfactory role in discerning scents as curatives or miasmas.  The porous humoral body was susceptible to shifts in the Galenic non-naturals—air, sleep, diet, exercise, the passions, and excretion—and the womb was considered one of the body’s orifices through which it interacted with the larger world.  Odorous plants could purge disproportionate humors in the womb, allowing it to return to its rightful place because of its sympathy with the nose.  According to early modern medicine, the womb could smell the scents administered externally because of its porous nature and olfactory ability.


Amy Kenny is a Visiting Assistant Professor at University California, Riverside. She is currently working on a book on wombs, entitled, Humoral Wombs on the Shakespearean Stage, under contract with Palgrave Literature, Science, and Medicine series.


[1]Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives (London: Peter Cole, 1662), 50.

[2]Paré, Ambroise. The Works of that Famous Chirurgeon Ambrose Parey, trans. T. H. Johnson (London: Mary Clark, 1678), 574.

[3]R. C., I. D., M. S., T. B., The Compleat Midwife’s Practice Enlarged (Angel in Cornhill: Nathaniel Brookes, 1659), 216.

[4]Anonymous, A Rich Closet of Physical Secrets (Gartrude Dawson: London, 1653), 24.

[5]Rüff, Jacob. The Expert Midwife, or An Excellent and Most Necessary Treatise of the Generation and Birth of Man (London: E. Griffin for S. Burton, 1637), 67.

[6]Paré, Ambrose. The Works of that Famous Chirurgeon Ambrose Parey, trans. T. H. Johnson (London: Mary Clark, 1678), 574.

[7]Crook, Helkiah. Mikrokosmographia, A Description of the Body of Man (Barbican: W. Jaggard, 1616), 223

Dr. Chase

By Mandy Aftel

A peddlar, from the Italian Frontispiece of Alessio Piemontese.

In early America, settlers on an expanding frontier had to rely on their own skills and know-how. At the same time, itinerant peddlers made this self-reliance possible, by providing both materials that couldn’t be grown or made and practical information and instruction on cooking, medicine, and more. Even in Colonial times, aromatics peddler was a recognized profession, as distinct from, say, indigo peddler. “Usually a free-lance,” writes Richardson Wright in Hawkers and Walkers in Early America, “he managed to scrape together ten or twenty dollars, which was enough capital to set himself up in business, that is, fill his tin trunk with peppermint, bergamot, and wintergreen extracts and bitters.”[i] In that era, every settler was a distiller, and the bitters were in great demand to mix with homemade spirits. Aromatics were also used in food and all kinds of home remedies.

Peddling expanded with the frontier, and the peddler became a familiar figure there, his one or two small oblong tin trunks mounted on his back with a leather strap There were the general peddlers who hawked an assortment of useful “Yankee notions”—buttons, sewing thread, spoons, small hardware items, children’s books, and perfume. Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, left Yale to become a Yankee notions peddler before developing into a major figure of the transcendentalist movement.

Over time, a peculiarly American subculture grew up around this nomadic subculture that included not only peddlers but also medicine shows, carny folk, fortune tellers, dancing bears, minstrels, and all manner of “hawkers and walkers” who live on in our memory of what Greil Marcus has called the “Old Weird America.”

Credit: Collection Mandy Aftel.

One pivotal figure in that world was “Doctor” A. W. Chase. Born in 1817, he started out as a peddler of foodstuffs and medicines in Ohio and Michigan. For a while he traveled with the circus, collecting recipes—among them “Backwoods Preserves”, “Good Samaritan Liniment” and “Magnetic Ointment,” which Chase insisted was “really magnetic” though it contained only lard, raisins, and tobacco— from the same people he peddled to: housewives, settlers`, doctors, saloon keepers. A recipe for Toad Ointment, a remedy for strain and injury that he got from “an Old Physician who thought more of it than of any other prescription in his possession,” called for cooking live toads along with other ingredients. “Some persons might think it hard on toads,” wrote Chase, “but you couldn’t kill them quicker in any other way.”[ii]

Eventually, Chase settled in Ann Arbor, where he printed a pamphlet of the recipes he had collected, giving it the title Dr. Chase’s Recipes; or, Information for Everybody. This was a distinctly American Book of Secrets, and like the one published by his predecessor Alessio Piedmontese, it became a huge success, sold by peddlers much like himself to people who wanted a practical, all-purpose book to help them with all manner of daily problems. Over the next dozen years Chase continued to add to it and to reprint it, until, by its thirty-eighth edition, it contained more than six hundred recipes. It was translated into German, Dutch, and Norwegian, and sold all over the English-speaking world. Although he sold his rights to the book and the printing house he had established, he ultimately lost his fortune and was a pauper when he died in 1885. But his book lived on, selling about four million copies by 1915. According to William Eamon, “There were years when Dr. Chase’s Recipes sold second only to the Bible.”[iii]

Credit: Collection Mandy Aftel.

Some of Chase’s recipes were for things everyone needed— glue, ink, vinegar, ketchup—while others were specific to the needs of certain professions, from bakers to gunsmiths. He organized it not by chapter but by “departments”: “Saloon,” “What and How to Eat,” “How to Live Long,” “What to do Until the Doctor Comes,” “Sheep, Swine and Poultry,” and “Care of the Skin,” to name but a few. His disquisition on vinegar captures the flavor of can-do exhortation that made his book such an enduring hit:

Merchants and Grocers who retail vinegar should always have it made under their own eye, if possible, from the fact that so many unprincipled men enter into its manufacture, as it affords such a large profit. Remember this fact –that vinegar must have air as well as warmth, and especially is it necessary if you desire to make it in a short space of time. And if at any time it seems to be “Dying” as is usually called, add molasses, sugar, alcohol or cider—– whichever article you are making from, or prefer—– for vinegar is an industrious fellow; he will either work or die, and when he begins to die you may know has worked up all the material in his shop, and wants more.[iv]

Although experienced physicians regarded Chase as a charlatan, the medical remedies were the most popular aspect of his book. He recommends “soot coffee”– yes, made from “soot scraped from a chimney (that from stove pipes does not do),” steeped in water and mixed with sugar and cream, as a restorative for those suffering from ague, typhoid fever, jaundice, dyspepsia, and more. “Many persons will stick up their noses at these ‘Old Grandmother prescriptions,’ but I tell many ‘upstart Physicians’ that our grandmothers are carrying more information out of the world by their deaths than will ever be possessed by this class of ‘sniffers,’ and I really thank God, so do thousands of others, that He has enabled me, in this work, to reclaim such an amount of it for the benefit of the world.”[v]

[i] Richardson Wright, Hawkers and Walkers in Early America: Strolling Peddlers, Preachers, Lawyers, Doctors, Players, and Others from the Beginning to the Civil War (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1927) 56-57.

[ii] William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 359.

[iii] Ibid, 359.

[iv] A. W. Chase, Dr. Chase’s Recipes or Information for Everybody, revised ed. (Chicago: Thompson & Thomas, 1903), 37.

[v] Ibid, 79. https://www.isurvey.soton.ac.uk/27877


Mandy Aftel is an artisan perfumer who has published on scent and flavour. She also has a small museum, The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. (Details here.) The above excerpt is from her award-winning book, Fragrant:The Secret Life of Scent (Penguin, 2014). You can purchase her books here.

Nature’s Coin: Beauty and Alchemy in Margaret Baker’s Book

This two-part post is by a former student of mine, who also happens to be an author of popular history. Karen has written on fun things like fashion and Essex Girls (in history). Her original, longer post is taken from a digital group project on Margaret Baker’s recipe book that was complete for my 2016-7 module, The Digital Recipe Book Project.


By Karen Bowman

A delicate powder for the face, Margaret Baker, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.169, f. 97.

In the late seventeenth-century, recipe book compiler Margaret Baker listed twenty-eight recipes for beauty, amidst medicines for dropsy and distemper and recipes for custards and the stewing of racks of mutton. Baker’s recipes for beauty ranged from face powder and whitened hands to face waters and hair growth treatments (ff. 51, 109).  Baker had the chemical knowledge to beautify. Not only do the beauty treatments suggest her agency, status, and knowledge, but hint at strong connections between beauty and alchemy.

It was The Lady Croon’s recipe for pomatum (f. 106) that first caught my attention, pointing to chemical transformation in the social sense. While Lady Croon appears to be the author of the pomatum recipe, the contributor’s name “Mistress Anne Corbett” appears in the margin. If Mistress Corbett had passed on the recipe directly from Lady Croon, it seems likely that both had the means to make the pomatum and shared in an aristocratic social network (or aspired to one). Lady Croon’s pomatum was more than a means of creating a beautifying substance; the transference of knowledge was a gift that affirmed friendship bonds, social standing, and aspirations.

Pomatum was a greasy, waxy, or water-based substance used to style hair before applying powder. Given that powdered hair was a sign of class identity, the recipe suggests that Baker may had occasions to attend polite gatherings. Dressing one’s hair and caring for one’s skin required ‘self knowledge and inward identity and knowledge beyond one’s self reflecting an understanding of the body, its cultural and social meanings’ (Snook, 7). In a patriarchal society, in the absence of of wider legal and political representation, the ability to transform oneself was powerful information.

One’s face and body was the blank canvas for identity and social standing. For famed beauty Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (b. 1623), fair white skin was even political. She insisted that her mother was ‘a woman with perfect skin and politics’; skin thus represented social order and familial harmony–and, in her case, the Royalist cause. Other women, too, recognized beauty as nature’s coin and a way of forging identity within their own domestic structures and hierarchies.

Unknown, Lady at her Toilet, c. 1650-60. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the real achievement for women was not the face and body they showed the world. It was the the female knowledge of how to manipulate nature through chemistry and alchemy in order to transform basic materials into healing and beautifying physic.

There were relatively few make-up items in Baker’s book, as we today would understand them. Many were even gender neutral. Her products include items to ‘take away heat and pimples in the face’, ‘to make a clense from spotts’, ‘waters for the face’, ‘to take away freckles’, ‘to stop hair falling and grow thicke’, ‘to take away chapped hands’, and to keep the face smooth’ (ff.14, 44, 51, 83, 109, 49, 92). In addition there are instructions for making ‘a butter to curl the hair’, ‘to make hands soft and white’, ‘make a perfume’ and to perfume gloves’. (ff. 94, 85, 31, 98).

What many of the recipes have in common is that they were designed to transform the skin rather than cover it. Even hand ointments had a higher purpose, not just removing blemishes; keeping hands soft avoided drying and cracking, and becoming susceptible to disease. Protecting and preserving the skin was central to beauty.

Oyle of talcum, Margaret Baker, Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.619, f. 21.

Many of the recipes required extensive time, skill, and effort to prepare. Baker included a powder recipe is for ‘oyle of talcume’ (f. 21), which was labourious to make. At one point in the process it needed to be let down by a rope

into a well some yard & a halfe or two yardes from the water nere to the well soe it touch it not’ & soe let it hang .20. or. 25. daies then if you find that it begine to cast out some oyle take it out of the well & set it in some moyst place, in some corner of your seller to defend it from the ayre: wind or other harmes & soe leaue it soe longe untill all the liccor become out of it.

The result was powder that could be mixed with water to wash the hands and body, making ‘them very white, soft and free from freckles or spottes – good for ladies’.

An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower of David Teniers the younger,. c. 1610-1690. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sometimes, the connections between alchemy (or chemical medicine) and beauty were literal. Baker used mercury in both her medicinal recipes and beautifying physic. This was not just an ingredient. Its knowledgeable deployment put Baker within the (assumed) masculine spheres of medicine, surgery and alchemy. Throughout her book, there are clues that Baker read widely on medicine and alchemy.

But the connections between alchemical transformation and bodily protection are clearest in beauty recipes. For example, in relation to one particular beautifying physic (f.12v.) it appears that Baker is attempting the impossible. An anomaly arises in the title ‘the taking away ‘quicksilver from mercurie’–the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that mercury and quicksilver are in fact the same. However, it seems that Baker may have been aware of cutting-edge experiments. Natural philosopher Robert Boyle, Baker’s contemporary, explained that through a system of depuration or continuous distillation and reduction, common quicksilver will run from the purified form of mercury left behind, which is then suitable for more sophisticated use (Boyle 645). In Baker’s case she is able to produce a ‘perfect water to keep the face cleare from spots or wrinkles.’

Baker’s recipes reveal her intellect and interaction with ideas of the day, as well as point to the uses of beauty treatments: transforming one’s body chemically and alchemically.  Bodily transformations included protecting and beautifying the skin, or even enabling social elevation.  Beauty and alchemy sat close together in Baker’s book.

 

The devil is in the details: turpentine varnish

Corrosion cast of bronchi and trachea, possibly from a rabbit, sheep, or dog, 1880-1890
Likely prepared by Harvard anatomist Samuel J. Mixter.
The Warren Anatomical Museum in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

By Marieke Hendriksen

One of the first things you learn when you do reconstruction research is that the tiniest detail can make a difference.

Recently, I wanted to prepare an injection wax for corrosion preparations according to a 1790 recipe. Corrosion preparations are anatomical preparations created by injecting an organ with a fluid coloured wax that hardens. The organ is then lowered into a container with a corrosive substance, such as a hydrochloric acid solution, which corrodes the tissue, leaving a negative image of the veins and arteries of the organ. These preparations were made from at least the mid-eighteenth century, but because of their fragility, very few remain. As they were supposedly difficult to make, corrosion preparations were not only a way of studying anatomy, but also a tool for self-fashioning and establishing one’s status as an anatomist.

I have tried to create an injected preparation in the past.[1]It was my first attempt at reconstruction research ever, and although it served me well at the time, now I do things differently.

Most importantly, I want to stay much closer to the original recipe if possible. When we made the injected preparations in 2012, we used modern substitutes for some historical ingredients for economic reasons, and we did not have the time to study every ingredient in detail, substituting those we could not find directly with something we thought would have pretty much the same effect.

The recipe I want to use, Thomas Pole’s 1790 instruction for making a corrosion preparation, calls for a coarse red wax, made from fifteen ounces of yellow bees wax, eight ounces of white resin, six ounces of turpentine varnish, and three ounces of vermillion or carmine red.[2]The wax, resin, and pigment are fairly straightforward.

What is turpentine varnish though? Back in 2012, we ended up using just turpentine rather than turpentine varnish, and although those injections were not meant to be corroded, we ran into numerous problems. For example, it turned out to be almost impossible to keep the wax and the organs at a temperature at which we could both handle it and have it fluid enough to inject. It made me wonder whether sticking with the original recipe could solve that problem, so I set out to recreate it.

This turned out to be more complicated than expected, as there is not one standard recipe for turpentine varnish. Eventually I found a Dutch recipe from 1832 listing a turpentine varnish to finish display cabinets for natural history collections.[3] The ingredients are a pound of oil of turpentine, 8 ‘loot’ (a loot being 1/32 Dutch pound) of white resin, four loot of Venice turpentine, and ½ loot of aloe or kolokwint. Raw larch turpentine has a high concentration of volatile oils that can be distilled. The fluid part is known as oil of turpentine, whereas the residue left in the retort is usually called resin, rosin, or colophony. Oil of turpentine is the essential oil that remains after distilling raw larch turpentine. Venice turpentine is a thick, viscous exudation from the Austrian larch tree, which is not used as a varnish on its own as it becomes dark and brittle when exposed to oxygen and light. Aloe vera is widely known; kolokwint (the Dutch name for Citrullus colocynthisor bitter apple) less so. It is a plant with yellow fruits that resemble small pumpkins, which are very bitter and poisonous. That quality might explain its presence in a recipe for a varnish that is meant to ward off insects. Powdered aloe is readily available from artist’s material suppliers, so I went with that.

The varnish after 10 hours in the sun. The Aloe is the clearly visible murkiness on the bottom. Photograph: author.

The preparation of the varnish was pretty straightforward: put all ingredients in a bottle, cover, and leave in the sun for a day. The only problem was that I had to wait a week for a sunny day. When it came, I put in the ingredients and just left the bottle out in the sun for a couple of hours, which allowed me to stir the ingredients together. The aloe however did not resolve properly, and just sits at the bottom of the jar. While this might not be much of a problem when the varnish is applied to a cabinet, it makes this particular turpentine varnish unsuitable for use in my injection wax. Next time, I will make another batch without aloe and use that instead.

Why do I recount this–admittedly not very exciting–story? It shows how difficult it can be to follow a historical recipe to the letter. It also shows how much you learn from reconstruction research, even if it does not always yield the results you’d like, or as fast as you’d like.

[1]Marieke Hendriksen, Elegant Anatomy, (Leiden: Brill 2015), pp. 1-9.

[2]Thomas Pole, The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C(London: Couchman & Fry, 1790), pp. 21-5, 122-42.

[3] S. de Grebber, Over de schadelijke huisinsekten, als de huisvliegen, wespen, muggen, weegluizen, vlooijen, luizen, motten, pels-, boek- en kruidkevers en wormen, hout-, blad- en schildluizen, plantmijten enz., met aanwijzing van voldoende en proefhoudende middelen, om dezelve geheel uit te roeijen, Volume 1,(Amsterdam, 1832), pp. 52-3.