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.
“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…
*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.
Two summers ago in the state archive of Florence I discovered, filed under the heading of “miscellaneous Medici,” a simple sleeve which held a collection of over 200 recipes that belonged to the last Medici Princess, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743). Born in 1667 in Florence, Anna Maria Luisa was the only daughter and second child of Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Marguerite Louise d’Orléans. In 1691, she was married to Johann Wilhelm II von der Pfalz (1658-1716), Elector Palatine. She lived in Düsseldorf, her husband’s capital, until his death in 1716. A year later Anna Maria Luisa returned to her native Florence. During her twenty-six year absence neither of her brothers, Ferdinando or Gian Gastone, produced a Medici heir. With the death of her father and both of her brothers, Anna Maria Luisa became the last Medici.
Anna Maria Luisa’s collection of recipes covered topics as diverse as rare paint colors, desserts, fever waters, concoctions to control epilepsy and lung inflammation, and even forms of lapidary medicine. One rather strange recipe to control infant convulsions or a periodic fever (terzana) detailed how to make a powder from the precipitation of a pulverized skull of a man who died violently but was never buried, oriental pearls, red and white coral, yellow amber, and peony roots and seeds. Another simply prescribed female rhino blood for strokes and general blood flow, and yet another recipe recommended the vaginal insertion of St. Ignatius beans to “lower the monster of women.”
Intrigued at what I had uncovered, I read on. I found that many of the recipes were straightforward directions for combining listed ingredients, like the infant convulsion powder, while others incorporated more complex alchemical techniques such as steeping, pulverizing, fermentation, and distillation. One of the recipes for fever water (acqua da febbre) called for the creation of a poisonous plant tincture and distillation of sulfur. The recipe then instructed to mix one ounce of each with Capraggine water (made from a European shrub) and leave it sealed to ferment in the sun for two days.
Pieces of folded paper and letters of correspondence grouped many of the recipes within the collection, making a few distinct categories apparent—techniques to create rare or secret paint colors and dye marble, the whitening of silks and lace, culinary recipes, and medicinal recipes and therapeutics. The sequential and identical page numbers penciled in at the top of every page indicated that these categories were the product of later archivists.
In addition to recipes for fever water, perfumes, and ointments, directions for applying balsams, and therapeutics for epilepsy and pleurisy (lung pain or inflammation), Anna Maria Luisa’s collection also included a lengthy and detailed Portuguese inventory of raw medicinal materials. This inventory not only listed materia medica, like roots and seeds from the Kingdom of Manica, beans from Manila, and “bread” from Timor, it also detailed the uses and virtues of each. Two pages, one written in Portuguese the other in Italian, were dedicated to the uses and virtues of Pietre Cordiali, or Goa Stones. The unknown author of the inventory explained that these stones, created by the lay Jesuit Gaspar Antonio, were the best heart medicines he had ever found, but could also be used to combat fevers, animal venom, poisons, and even kidney stones.
After reading through her collection, it was clear that Anna Maria Luisa collected recipes from her family’s ducal pharmacy (some of the recipes credit the Medici fonderia or are stamped with the Medici crest), received and exchanged recipes via courtly epistolary networks, and gathered exotic raw medicinal materials through Italian and Portuguese trade networks and Jesuit missionaries. As I read through the inventories of raw materials, it became apparent that Anna Maria Luisa’s collection was not only the product of European courtly customs, but was also connected to exploration, colonial expansion, and global exchanges through trade and missionary commerce, all of which facilitated the movement of people, things, and knowledge.
Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes have become the foundation of my dissertation, which I have just begun researching. I look forward to sharing my findings as I search for what motivated Anna Maria Luisa to collect recipes, who (if anyone) she exchanged recipes with, and how she learned of the exotic raw materials she collected. On a larger scale, I hope this project offers the opportunity to study how people or groups outside institutional medicine contributed to the creation, dissemination, and legitimization of emerging scientific and medicinal knowledge. In this case, how did a Medici princess, courtly scientific patronage, Italian and Portuguese traders, Jesuit missionaries, and indigenous populations contributed to the discourse of early modern medicine through recipes?
 The rhino blood, presumably from Africa–“Dos Sangue d Abbada, Serve este sangue para cursos, e fluxos de sangue.” And the St. Ignatius beans from the Philippines–“Para fave (fazer) abaixar o menstro das molheres”
As the holiday season draws near, mistletoe might come to mind, since the tradition of kissing under this otherwise culturally-absent plant prevails today. Native to North America, mistletoe grows in the west as well as in areas of the east. The first time I saw mistletoe growing high in the tree canopy as I was driving down the highway here in North Carolina, it seemed somehow out of place, with its wispy tendrils, quite unlike the version I’d seen in stores over the years. In England, mistletoe, or viscum album, grows as a shrub, with its small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries. It seems that today, the extracts of European mistletoe has been used for seizures, headaches, and even to treat cancer. And to think: I thought it was just for kissing.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across the following references to mistletoe from correspondence between Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, and her brother, Robert Boyle. Both letters express Jones’s concern for her sister-in-law, Margaret Boyle, as she suffers from frequent bouts of “scurbitical humour,” or fits related to scurvy.
In the first letter, Jones refers to a quantity of mistletoe that she has found in the recently-deceased Lady Clarendon’s “case”:
“Nature being soe farr weakened as to be unable to worke together wth ye remedys ye Dr had upon consulte agreed to give her. None of all which had so visible an operation as to wakening and rousing her as a large bottle of very quick spirit of Hartshorne that I procured for he held under her nose which ye Dr confesed was as proper as any thing that could be use to her (& which I give you notice of to invite you to put yourselfe into a good stock of it for my Dearest Sisters use which how you may doe, one that I know having lately stilled it in good quantity & selling it for 5s an ounce. Halfe a pinte would be enough for you at once which was about what we now had for this poore Lady … I intend this night if I can get Dr Cox to discourse with him about her, & then send you wt he directs his power he thinks rather better than ye Misselto I found in my Lady Claringdons case that ye Dr [saw her] foaming & puking at ye mouth differing things in these fits he she did ye later at least…” (BL Add 75354, ff. 101-104: Letter from Katherine to Robert 10 Aug, 1667?).
In the second letter, dated a week later, mistletoe is prescribed as a possible remedy for Margaret Boyle’s fits, but an alternative remedy, a “hartshorn spirit” of Jones’s making, figures as again as an arguably superior treatment:
“The misselto may be given about ye changes of ye moone if it could be got in quantities enough to be so employed but because its so great a raretie its seldome given but in a fit or upon discovery of ye approach of one. My Lady Warwicke is not yet come home when she does I shall god wiling make her send you some but my Lord Dretzwel can furnish you for he has one growing. Ye Hartshorne spirit I have spoken for as you [requested] but know not how to send a halfe pint bottle by ye post & therefore shal desire Mr Graham to send it as fast as he can” (BL Add 75354, ff. 107r-110v, dated 17 Aug 1667?).
While there is much that could be said about these letters, what’s curious to me is the way that mistletoe and hartshorn spirits function as competing treatments for scorbitical fits [related to scurvy] (and earlier in the first letter, ironically, the doctor insisted that Margaret Boyle not eat raw fruit when she began to feel unwell). Jones seems not quite to want to contradict the doctor’s prescription of mistletoe, but she certainly suggests her hartshorn might be more effective. In the first letter, that is, she makes it clear that even the doctor “confesed” that her hartshorn spirits, waved under the nose (which she can sell to interested parties for 5s an ounce, by the way…) vivified the ailing Lady Clarendon more effectively than other applications; and it seems the “foaming & puking at ye mouth” that Lady Clarendon experienced may well have stemmed from her use of the mistletoe in her case, as mistletoe ingestion induces vomiting. In both recipes, the references to mistletoe as a treatment are followed almost immediately by those for Jones’s own (and obviously preferred) hartshorn spirits, made from the shavings from a hart’s antlers, which produces ammonium carbonate. And while it seems that such a remedy would likely be an irritant to its user, Jones swears by it. Or at least she swears by her spirit of hartshorn. Maybe it is better, though, to leave the hartshorn on the hart and the mistletoe for kissing and just eat some fruit—or some fruitcake.
I’ve been a teaching assistant twice for a two-semester survey of the history of western medicine offered at the Johns Hopkins University. The full sequence takes undergraduates from Hippocrates to Obamacare, with the second semester covering the Enlightenment to the present. One of the pleasures of teaching a discussion section during the second semester is that it allows me to explore the history of our own institution with a group of undergraduates, many of whom themselves hope to work in healthcare and perhaps to study medicine at Johns Hopkins.
A key, fascinating figure in the early history of Hopkins–and one who bridges central course themes as we shift from the early modern, to the modern, to the contemporary–is William Halsted. He was one of the “Big Four,” a brilliant surgeon, an accidental cocaine addict. Halsted is well known for his role in the history of mastectomy, and in this as in other areas of his career he can illuminate these themes for students. His life and career, for example, epitomize the promises and perils of developments in nineteenth-century surgery. I also believe that the history of radical mastectomy has particular power for many because the tensions that the measure introduced into the lives of sufferers continue to be recognizable in our own. We all have friends and family who have suffered from and with cancer and cancer therapies, and many have faced decisions over difficult breast surgeries. These tensions also persist at the level of public policy. For instance, just in the last few days, as I was preparing this post, I listened to a contentious panel discussion on the American public radio program “The Diane Rehm Show” about routine mammography.
I don’t want to suggest that our and our loved ones’ medical experiences are in any way the same as Halsted’s patients’, much less those of early modern people who contemplated going under the knife, but I do want to suggest here that making such connections may help us and our students think about and empathize with historical actors who often seem very foreign from us. Recipe books might seem like poor sources for doing this, but if we look closely I think that there is in fact evidence of a great deal of emotion and drama. It is visible, for instance, in recipes that heal breasts, especially breasts threatened by dire maladies and consequently surgeons’ tools.
As scholarship such as Lucinda Beier’s on the London surgeon Joseph Binns has shown us, workaday early modern surgeons did not perform much invasive surgical work.1 Opening the body and reaching into it with tools and chemicals was usually a last resort, but it was one some surgeons and sufferers were willing to undertake. Operations like craniotomy, lithotomy, and, of course, limb amputation are the best known pre-modern measures. Surgeons also sometimes cut into afflicted breasts, removing portions of breasts or even amputating them entirely.
A vivid instance of an early modern breast surgery can be found in the writings of Richard Wiseman. Wiseman was sergeant-surgeon to Charles II and an influential surgical author. One of his published cases describes the sufferings of a twenty-six-year-old “Country maid.”2 The woman was afflicted with an ulcerated cancer of the right breast “arising from some accidental Bruise.” It had progressed to a grim stage. Wiseman decided the breast could not be cured, and urged that it should be cut off before “a Fungus” which he thought lay deep in the breast “should be fixed to the Ribs.”
Wiseman won some sort of consent, though how ready it was is perhaps indicated by his explanation that she and her companions “were not unwilling that it should be cut off” and that their decision took a month. Wiseman himself seems to have been much more eager, having just received “the Royal Stiptick liquor” at the king’s command. He saw the surgery as “seasonable” for experimenting with it, in the presence of “some Friends who desired to see the efficacy.”
I should warn you that his description of the operation is difficult to read. Like many early modern surgeons’ description of operations, it also largely occludes the patient and her experience. I will quote it at length here, however, because I think that it gives a powerful glimpse of what an invasive procedure was like at this time. But please skip the next two paragraphs if that is not a glimpse you’d like to take. Wiseman’s associate, the physician Walter Needham,
pulled up the Breast while I made a Ligature upon the basis of it, and cut it off. The two Arteries bled forcibly out, till Doctor Needham applied a wet Button [lint soaked in the water] on the one, and… [an assistant] applied the other… [One] stopt the Bleeding at that very instant… but the bloud dribbled from under the other: which we supposed happened by reason of the bloud streaming upon it in the putting it on. But by the application of a fresh Button the Bleeding there also stopped. During this the Lips of the wound were brought nearer to each other by a cross stich. We then applied our Digestive with convenient Bandage over it, and laid the Patient in her Bed. [They left, and] In our absence she fainted, and upon the drinking a draught of cold water vomitted, and her Breast bled through the Dressings. Upon sight thereof I took off the Dressings, and seeing one of the Arteries seepe, I applied a fresh Dostil [dossil], and stopt it: but it being night, and dreading mischief might happen if it should bleed again, I sent for a small Button cautery, and that way secured it. (“I secured that Artery by the touch of a hot Iron,” he explained in another account of the operation.)
The woman had some difficulties after the operation, but she returned to the country a month and a half later. Once there, however, the cicatrix “fretted off” and the ulcer grew. She returned to Wiseman, who treated her successfully. “Since which time,” he concluded, “I have seen her often in Town in very good health, and her Breast firmly cicatrized, without pain or hardness.”3
It’s surgical measures like this that give us a sense of what what authors and compilers had in mind when they collected remedies that saved breasts destined for the knife or powerful chemicals. The Johanna St. John collection, featured in anumberofearlierpostshere, has a striking example. It is “For a Cancer in the Breast”:
A piece of a sheep skin taken off the Flank of the sheep lay the skin side to the breast changing it once in 12 hours & in hot weather once in 6 hours this was used to a woman whose breast was to be cut off but was not broke & it kept her very many years without any pain or trouble & at last died of another disease La Child knew the woman to whom it was taught by a French man.4
This tale, as well as the information about the provenance of the remedy and the presence of similar examples, indicates the involvement of collectors in a world of remedies for serious medical problems that offered them the chance to control the measures they used and offered them the hope of avoiding the most unpleasant. Quacks offered something similar when they peddled non-mercurial pox treatments.5
I am very interested to know whether you’ve found similar sorts of material in recipe books that might give evidence of therapeutic preferences. I’m also interested in how recipes (these sorts and others) have been or could be used in teaching the history of pre-modern medicine, especially to students in survey courses. In my favorite activity from the first half of our survey, we give groups of students a selection of seventeenth-century medical advertisements and ask them to think about what the advertisers were offering, how they offered it, and why it may have been appealing to consumers. Would it be possible to design similar sorts of lessons using selections from recipe collections? How else can we use collections and recipes in the classroom, especially when teaching students that are new to early modern history and working with primary sources?
1 “Seventeenth-Century English Surgery: The Casebook of Joseph Binns,” in Christopher Lawrence (ed.), Medical Theory, Surgical Practice: Studies in the History of Surgery (London: Routledge, 1992): 48-84, and Sufferers and Healers: The Experience of Illness in Seventeenth Century England (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), chp. 3.
2 Michael McVaugh, “Richard Wiseman and the Medical Practitioners of Restoration London,” Journal of the History of Medicine 62 (2007): 125-40. He briefly discusses this case on 133-34.
3Eight Chirurgical Treatises, 3rd ed. (London: for B.T. and L.M., 1697), Wing W3106A, pg. 108-109, “Observat. of a Cancerous Breast cut off.” Phil. Trans. 8 (1673): 6039. Italics removed.
4 Wellcome MS 4338, fol 18v. I’ve modernized the spelling here.
5 For instance: Andrew Wear, Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 271.