Category Archives: 19th Century History

Dr. Crawford Long’s Remedy for Insect Bites – Another Use for Ether

By: Michelle DiMeo

On May 20, 1847, Dr. Crawford W. Long was called to see a child residing 6 miles outside of Jefferson, Georgia, who had been bitten by an insect four hours earlier. He was at least 100 yards away when he “distinctly heard her screams”. The child was in extreme pain and suffering from various symptoms, including stomach cramps, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and muscle spasms in the abdomen. The family had given her “about half pint of brandy … two portions of sen[e]ka snake root boiled in ^sweet^ milk and … two teaspoons full of Aqua ammonia, but all without the least benefit”. Dr. Long administered “eighty drops Tinct Opii, a teaspoonful of Hoffmans Anodyne, and the application of the strong Aqua ammonia on a pledget of cloth to the bitten part and retaining it until vesication was produced”. After seeing some improvement, he continued with doses of Hoffman’s Anodyne and the Tincture of Opium in thirty minute intervals, noting the patient was “greatly relieved”.[1]

Hoffman's Anodyne
With Permission from

The preferred remedy, primarily a combination of Hoffman’s Anodyne and opium tincture, worked as an anti-spasmodic and a pain-killer. Hoffman’s Anondyne was a compound sometimes known as “Spirit of Ether”, produced through a process of distillation. Though originally named after the German physician Friedrich Hoffmann (1660- 1742), the recipe was still popular across Europe and the US during the mid-19th century. One 1850s pharmaceutical study of the remedy’s chemical properties found that versions of it varied greatly between commercial manufacturers, between international pharmacopoeia, and from Hoffman’s original recipe.[2]

Dr. Crawford Williamson Long (1815-78), an American surgeon and anesthetist, is one of the first physicians to have administered ether as an anesthesia for surgery. After receiving his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1839, he practiced medicine in New York before returning to his home state, Georgia, in 1841. As early as 1842, Dr. Long used sulfuric ether during the surgical removal of a tumor. He continued to use ether in operations over the next few years, but he failed to publish his results until 1849, after anesthesia was already heralded as a major medical innovation.[3]

Dr. Long's Remedy for Insect Bites
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, MSS 2/0093-01

While Dr. Long is celebrated today for his innovative use of ether in surgery, the double-sided single-page manuscript from which this story was taken shows that he was also using popular ether-based medical remedies to treat common household ailments, such as insect bites. After the turn of the nineteenth century, ether was drunk in medical remedies in the United States and Europe and became a popular recreational drug in many European countries.[4] In this manuscript, Dr. Long reports that he successfully administered this treatment a second time and he was writing this account specifically because “A great variety of Sovereign remedies have been recommendend [sic] ^as being usefullest^ for the treatment of bites of poisonous insects”, but there was “still great diversity of opinion among the Members of the Medical profession”.

Dr. Long’s narrative is also a good reminder to us that sub-divisions within the medical field were not as defined in the past as they are today: there was nothing wrong with a surgeon exploring pharmaceutical remedies. Further, the fact that he records in detail the household remedies his patient had already tried before he administered his own validates the possibility of their effectiveness, even if they were ineffective in this particular case, and it offers a good example of how diverse medical treatments were often intermingled.

[1] The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, MSS 2/0093-01, “Holograph remedy for poisonous insect bites, c. 1847”. This item also includes a typed donation letter from 1971 recording the provenance of the item.

[2] William Procter, Jr., “On Hoffman’s Anodyne Liquor”, American Journal of Pharmacy, 28, 1852, 213-18.

[3] W. M. Crawford, “An Account of the First Use of Sulphuric Ether by Inhalation as an Anaesthetic in Surgical Operations”, Southern Medical and Surgical Journal, 5, 1849, 705-713.

[4] Science Museum, “Ether”, Accessed 11/9/2012.

Gumpowder? A strange little recipe for sensitive teeth…

If you go to your bathroom and check the ingredients in your well-known brand of sensitive toothpaste, you may well find that the recipe contains the active ingredient potassium nitrate. Also known as saltpetre or nitre, this naturally occurring mineral is found in foods as a preservative (e.g. corned beef), and used in fertilizer, cigarettes, blood pressure medicines and fireworks. Since medieval times it has formed one of the main ingredients in gunpowder, and it is this connection that has also given potassium nitrate a long association with teeth and gums.

Many of the seventeenth and eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Library’s manuscripts include treatments for gunpowder burns, but some also proposed that gunpowder could be therapeutic. Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (sister to the famous chemist Robert Boyle), recommended a ‘little gunpowder’ applied in a linen cloth to ease toothache. On one page of Anne Brumwich’s recipe book (Wellcome MS 160, p.83) we can find nine recipes for toothache remedies written in two different hands. One, ‘An aproved medecine for ye toothake’ (approved meant that it worked) required gunpowder, aniseed water and lint, mingled together to ‘make a litell thing’.

Once the sufferer had picked their tooth very clean, the recipe instructed them to push the preparation into the tooth, taking care not to allow any of the mixture down the throat.

A century later, in A Treatise on the Scurvy (1795) David Paterson introduced his fellow naval surgeons to a wonderful, and apparently unknown remedy for scurvy: during a voyage in 1784, he claimed, he had restored the health of eighty sick seamen not with lemon juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, but with the potassium nitrate extracted from the gunpowder in his ship’s stores. Paterson’s remedy was soon forgotten, until in 1828, a desperate surgeon named Charles Cameron, having used up all his supplies of lemon juice, remembered Paterson’s recipe. Cameron was stranded in the calms near the equator and he was faced with a ship’s hospital full of scorbutic convicts, less than half way through the voyage to Australia. He extracted the nitre from the powder, dissolved some of it in vinegar, and mixed some more with vinegar and lime juice. He also added a little sugar (to taste?!) The effects were ‘miraculous’.

For the Navy, if Cameron was right, this was a money-saving opportunity; nitre was cheap and did not decompose over time. In the following decades surgeons continued to experiment with different remedies for scurvy until, in 1840, the Admiralty decided to perform a large-scale experiment to determine once and for all the best scurvy remedy. Over the next four years the surgeons of sixty ships transporting fifteen thousand convict men from Britain and Ireland to Australia received crystallised citric acid, potassium nitrate, and lemon juice. Their instructions clearly forbade the surgeons from trying to cause scurvy during the voyage but if the disease did appear, the patients were to be divided into three groups, each group receiving one of the remedies. Of course, the surgeons often had their own ideas, and often altered, combined and varyed the doses according to their own personal favoured recipe. So, while Surgeon Deas mixed some nitre with lime juice and some with citric acid, and felt that both mixtures were useful, Alexander Bryson gave each group the remedies mixed in a glass of wine, water and sugar. After many of the convicts developed severe scurvy, Bryson finally decided that potassium nitrate was ‘objectionable’. The surgeons had come to very different conclusions about the value of potassium nitrate but the results of the experiment were clear; potassium nitrate was abandoned as useless, lemon juice was in for good.

In the mid 1970s, dental researchers – in laboratories this time, rather than on ships – began to report a strange occurrence: mixing potassium nitrate with toothpaste seemed to reduce dental sensitivity in sufferers.  More work confirmed the compound’s beneficial effects, but the scientists still admitted that they were unclear why it should work; being soluble, it seemed that it should simply dissolve in water and wash out of the teeth at first rinse.

Jump forward again to the present, and potassium nitrate is often used as the active ingredient in products for sensitive teeth. So we have come a long way in medical understanding since women like Anne Brumwich stuffed aching teeth with gunpowder soaked lint, or Victorian naval surgeons dosed their convicts with nitre in the certainty that it helped with scurvy, and yet nitre has proved persistent: these earlier ideas about potassium nitrate’s ability to reduce not only the pain of toothache, but the symptoms of scurvy – a disease so commonly experienced in the mouth and gums – are worth wondering about.


Katherine Foxhall is a Wellcome Postdoctoral Researcher in History at King’s College London. Currently working on a history of migraine, Katherine has worked in the past on the history of migrant health, maritime quarantine, and illnesses including scurvy, cholera and typhus. Her book, Health, Medicine and the Sea: Australian Voyages, c. 1815- 1860 has recently been published with Manchester University Press.