Category Archives: Medicine

Sticky eyes or weeping wounds: trying to interpret the Pozzino tablets

Thousands of pharmacological and cosmetic recipes have come down to us from the Greek and Roman world. On the other hand, archaeological discoveries of ancient remedies are few and far between, and findings that can be analysed chemically and botanically are even rarer. Recently, ancient medicine made the news with the publication by a team of Italian scientists of the chemical analysis of remedies found aboard a Roman shipwreck – the Pozzino shipwreck, second century BCE [1]. The ship carried numerous pharmacological preparations, some of which are still in the process of being analysed (see here for more detail), and the publication focused on six roundish tablets preserved in a tin box. The scientific analysis revealed that the tablets contained 80% of inorganic materials, mainly zinc oxide and hematite, as well as starch, beeswax, animal and plant fats, pine resin, and other plant remains.

The tin box (pyxis) in which the tablets were found
The tin box (pyxis) in which the tablets were found

The authors of the article, referring themselves to ancient treatises on simple medicines (that is, treatises dealing with one pharmacological ingredient at a time), suggested that these tablets are eye remedies. A search (with the help of the electronic database of ancient Greek texts – the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) through ancient collections of pharmacological recipes also shows that zinc oxide and hematatite were used together in the treatment of eye diseases, as in the following example, which is extracted form Galen’s collection of Medicines according to Places :(second century CE)

Sweet-smelling remedy of Syneros against long-lasting ailments [of the eyes]: it works against eye-discharge and lachrymal fistula: cleaned Cadmia [zinc oxide], 28 drams; hematite stone, burnt and washed, 25 drams; Cyprian ash [i.e. copper], 24 drams; myrrh, 48 drams; saffron, 4 drams; Spanish opium-poppy, 8 drams; white pepper, 30 grains; gum, 6 drams; dilute with Italian wine. Use with an egg. (Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Places 4.8, 12. 774 Kühn)

This recipe, like many others, gives very little indication as to how the remedy should be prepared. I would suggest that all dry products should be crushed together in a mortar; diluted in wine and moulded into tablets. These should then be dried and dissolved in a liquid (here an egg) when needed. The modern reader will wince at the use of pepper in eye remedies, but making the eyes cry appears to have been one of the aims of ancient ophtalmological preparations, one of which was so unpleasant it was called ‘the thankless’.

Powdered zinc oxide

While zinc oxide and hematite stone would confirm an interpretation of the tablets as eye remedies, fats, resins and waxes are rarely listed in ancient ophtalmological recipes. To find an ancient recipe combining mineral ingredients, wax, fat and resin, one must look at formulae for cicatrization. The following example is attributed to Asclepiades (first century BCE) and preserved by Galen:

Asclepiades wrote the following concerning cicatrizing poultices…: burnt zinc oxide prepared with wine; roasted copper; of each 16 drams; wax, 80 drams; Colophonian resin, 8 ounces; sufficient amount of Italian wine. Crush the copper and zinc oxide with the wine, until the preparation has the consistency of wet cerate. Break the wax and resin into pieces, place in a ceramic vessel and add to these 1 litra of myrtle oil. Place on coals and stir continuously. When the ingredients have dissolved, remove from the fire and let the preparation cool down. Add the crushed ingredients, mix together, and use diluted with myrtle oil. (Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Types 2.14, 13.524 Kühn)

Experimentation would be required to determine the exact consistency of this remedy, but it is clear that it would have been much waxier than the Pozzino tablets. And here is the crux of the problem: it is impossible to find a recipe that lists all the ingredients entering the composition of these pills. And the same issue occurs every time scholars try to bring together written and archaeological sources in the field of ancient medicine. Some scholars will argue that many written recipes have been lost; others that every physician and pharmacologist in the ancient world had his own ‘secret’ recipes that were never written down. Whatever the case, the fascinating discoveries relating to the Pozzino tablets offer much opportunity for archaeologists, chemists, ethnopharmacologists and medical historians to collaborate and establish sound methodologies to bridge the gap between material and written pharmacological evidence.

[1] Gianna Giachi, Pasquino Pallecchi, Antonella Romualdi, Erika Ribechini, Jeannette Jacqueline Lucejko, Maria Perla Colombini, and Marta Mariotti Lippi, ‘Ingredients of a 2,000-y-old medicine revealed by chemical, mineralogical, and botanical investigations’, PNAS 2013 110 (4), 1193-1196

Exploring CPP MS 10a214: Looking for Anne Layfielde

By Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche

In an earlier post (18/10/2012), blog readers were introduced to a recipe book found at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  The volume’s ownership inscription reads, “Anne Layfielde / her booke of /Physicke & / Surgery / 1640,” and the entries within it appear in a wide array of hands and link recipes with the names of well over fifty contributors.  Rebecca Laroche noted that the name “Elizabeth Downing” appears in conjunction with many of the collection’s recipes.  I had worked with the same manuscript, MS 10a214, during my visit to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 2010, and Rebecca and I soon began discussing the challenges of situating this particular volume in time and place.  We realized that this forum offers an ideal venue for discussing those challenges, and we are embarking on a series of posting about our work with the manuscript.

A logical place to start seemed to be with the woman who claims ownership, Anne Layfielde. Who might she be?  The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography lists several Layfieldes living in the mid-seventeenth century, but all of them are male; no entries mention wives or daughters named Anne.  Working on the theory that Anne’s book might be part of a larger web of domestic texts, we conducted a full text search in the Wellcome Library’s online catalog, which indexes the names mentioned in many of its recipe books.

The search reveals four hits on the name “Layfield,” all appearing in M.S. 8575.  That volume’s opening pages feature the inscription “Mr Richard Holland his booke 1648,” providing a likely historical overlap with the College of Physicians of Philadelphia volume, dated 1640.  The Holland book attributes three recipes to a Mrs. Layfield – one for a “Brimstone Drink for Shortness of Breath,” another for “a very good poltice for a sore breast or any swelling,” and another for a “Seesing Powder” meant to relieve lightheadedness.

But it is the fourth return in the “Layfield” search that offers the most tempting – perhaps dangerously tempting – possibilities.  The recipe for “a sore breast which was feard might turn to a cancer” reflects a different tone from the other three Layfield recipes, perhaps because it comes from a “Mr Layfield,” not the earlier-named Mrs.  The questions this invites are far reaching:  are the manuscript’s Mr and Mrs Layfield husband and wife?  It is easy to assume they are at least members of the same family, if not of the same household.  Did Mrs. Layfield suffer from breast cancer, a condition whose treatment Mr. Layfield might have overseen, or at least witnessed?  The unusual opening line – “The surgeon saide the chief cure was in a good Diet” – introduces the entry as more of an anecdote than a recipe, one where medical authority comes from an unnamed professional.  And, just as importantly, the manuscript offers no clue as to who this Mr. Layfield might be, or where or when he lived.  It only seduces us into envisioning a potentially tragic story involving his household’s medical woes.

The possibility of such a family narrative makes the reference enticing, though its dramatic allure may be misleading.  But, as our ongoing work with the manuscript will show, these searches can unearth intriguing stories, even if they are unrelated to the projects that helped bring them to the surface.

 This is the first in a series of monthly posts on this topic.

Ice (Fires Foe): Some lessons in love and burning

By Phoebe Dickerson

What should you do if you burn yourself? Ideally, you’d stand bent over a sink of cool or tepid water for half an hour. Instead, if you’re anything like me, you’re more likely to run around clutching some frozen peas to the afflicted area. Or maybe you’d try smearing on some antiseptic ointment. However, if instead you were to turn to the celebrated Dutch physician, Paul Barbette (d. 1666) for advice, you’d be recommended to take a quite different approach. In his Thesaurus Chirurgiae (first translated into English in 1675), he writes:

The chief care must be to draw out the fire, by which in a light burning you preserve from Blisters and Ulcers; in a great one, you free from all danger; therefore, what Medicine soever is at hand, is presently to be used; let the hurt Part be held to the fire, and fomented with Ink, Lye; or let there be applied Soot, or an Onion beaten with Salt.[1]

While the notion of applying Soot, Ink or Lye to a burn is positively eye-watering, it hardly stands out among the wealth of curious balms and plasters that fill the pages of any early modern recipe book: the concept, however, of holding a burn to a fire – of letting it get nice and toasty – is, even within this context, glaringly misguided.

Was Barbette’s a voice in the wilderness? Certainly, I have not come across this precise recommendation anywhere else: nonetheless, it is worth considering that the notion we readily accept today, of reducing the heat of the area by applying something cold, was considered – and frequently dismissed – by early modern thinkers as a ‘contrary’ remedy. Such treatments were widely thought to aggravate the constitution into dangerous imbalance. George Acton for example, in 1670, expounds against the ‘extinction of praeternatural heat by cooling Medicines, and refocillation of cold, by heating ones.’ [2] Arguing that heat and cold were symptoms – rather than causes – of ‘the enraged Vital Spirit’, Acton asks :

‘Does not Fire burn most vehemently, when constring’d by an extreme cold of the ambient? And hot water sooner extinguish Fire than cold, because sooner penetrating its Pores? I could multiply arguments against the Method of curing Diseases by contrary Remedies.’

Barbette’s suggested burn treatment adheres instead to the logic of sympathy, according to which the heat in the wound would be attracted to the original heat of the fire.

‘An Unknown Man with Background of Flames’ c. 1600 (V&A) attrib. Nicholas Hilliard (click on image to link to the image’s entry on the V&A’s website)

The notion that cold would only exacerbate a burn has implications outside the medical realm: indeed, it finds explicit poetic expression in ‘The Exclamation’ [3], a mid-century love-lyric by Hugh Crompton (fl. 1657). The speaker advises his reader thus:

‘Ice (fires foe) laid to the skin
Thats burnt, will cause the flesh to turn
Into a blister, and within
With greater vehemency to burn!’

His purpose with this medical tit-bit is, of course, romantic: with this poem – half plaint, half invocation – the speaker, burnt by love, asks that his beloved’s ‘icy heart’ might melt and ‘reflect’ the warmth of his own burning heart. He says,

‘[…] thy heart will me affect,
And with enlivening flames me cherish.’

Where her cold heart’s frigid enmity endangered his heart, her hoped-for warm heart – newly aflame – will offer sympathy. It does not dim or extinguish the lover’s passion: rather, the flames of her love are ‘enlivening’ where, alone in the cold, his own were destructive.

Burning hearts and freezing mistresses are common Petrarchan conceits, pervasive in the period’s literary and artistic (see above) effusions of amorous feeling. Crompton’s words may seem a cocktail of early modern romantic cliché and ill-founded medical beliefs. Nonetheless, there is something at once unusual and appealing in the fact that his allusion to burns so closely echos the language of contemporary physicians. In addition, it so happens many modern doctors would agree with his words: the NHS website advises us to ‘never use ice or iced water’. The Mayo-clinic advises that ice can ‘cause a person’s body to become too cold and cause further damage to the wound’.

So, a caution, if you will: whether you are a lover – or simply someone with a nasty kitchen burn – think twice before you reach for the frozen peas. And whatever Barbette says, if you’re already burnt, perhaps you should stay back from the fire.

[1] Paul Barbette, Thesaurus chirurgiae : the chirurgical and anatomical works of Paul Barbette (London : Printed for Henry Rodes, 1686), p. 191

[2] George Acton, A letter in answer to certain quaeries and objections made by a learned Galenist against the theorie and practice of chymical physick… (London : Printed by William Godbid for Walter Kettleby), 1670, p.

[3] Hugh Crompton, Pierides, or, The muses mount by Hugh Crompton, Gent. (London : Printed by J.G. for Charles Web), 1658, p. 79.

Medicinal Compounds, Efficacious in Every Case

By Lisa Smith

Perhaps the most famous cure-all of all time is Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, immortalized in song as “Lily the Pink” (or “The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham”).* Although the original vegetable compound aimed to treat women’s ailments, the song suggests—tongue in cheek–that it might have much wider, rather miraculous applications. The boy with sticky out ears learns how to fly; the man who thought himself Julius Caesar becomes emperor of Rome.

Ridiculous. How, after all, could one drug cure so many ailments? In the modern world, cure-alls just don’t make sense.

But they did at one time. In early modern Europe, cure-all medicines were as likely to be sold by elite physicians as by “quacks” and were often made domestically. These treatments made sense. In a humoral body, with its properties of cold, hot, wet and dry, many seemingly different problems might have the same underlying cause.

Bridget Hyde’s book, late seventeenth century. Wellcome Library, MS 2990, f. 52v. Image Credit: Wellcome Library.

“Dr Stevens’ Water” was a common remedy in English remedy collections kept by well-to-do families. Authors sometimes provided lists of a treatment’s “virtues”, which usefully explain the underlying rationale. Bridget Hyde, for example, described Dr. Stevens’ Water as good for the vital spirits, inward colds, palsy, dropsy, gout, bladder stones, weak sinews, barrenness, worms, tooth-ache, stomach, and “rayns of ye back”. (Reins of the back refers to a urinary or genital discharge.)

An even more impressive and random list than Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound! What all of these illnesses had in common, however, was that they were caused by cold and wet humours. Looking up each ingredient in herbals and pharmacopoeias reveals that herbs like nutmegs, cloves, mace, aniseeds, lavender and rosemary (for example) had warming and drying properties.  Rosemary was ruled by the Sun and Aries; given its warming and comforting properties, it was commonly prescribed for any problems caused by cold humours. Mace, ruled by Venus, was chiefly used for treating problems of the womb.

Sometimes the connections are surprising. “Pertes de sang” (or blood loss) in French collections could refer to general losses of blood, excessive menstruation or uterine bleeding, miscarriage – or diarrhoea.  For example, one remedy for fluxes of blood in Mme Lievain’s book (Wellcome Library MS 3258, f. 132) also specified its use in diarrhoea. The main herb, cinquefoil, was commonly used for stomach problems as well as fluxes of all kinds, with a cooling property to sweeten the blood.

Most cure-alls did not try to treat everything, but had a clear rationale and focused on a group of closely-related ailments.

That said, not all cure-alls were created equal — and there were some weird ones out there. Lionel Lockyear, for example, claimed that his pills had the extract of the sun in them. Even better than Lily the Pink, then…

Broadsheet advertising L.Lockyer’s patent medicine. Image Credit: Wellcome Library.

*A rather entertaining song, though it needs an ear worm alert.

This has been cross-posted at the Cliopatra award-winning Wonders & Marvels, a fun group blog that focuses on odd stories and interesting historical tidbits. 

More on multi-purpose remedies can be found in my article, “Imagining Women’s Fertility before Technology”, Journal of Medical Humanities, 31, 1 (2010): 69-79.