In 1694, surgeon William Cowper and other members of the Royal Society gathered to test a Vulnerary Powder peddled by an apothecary named John Colbatch. The powder, Colbatch argued, was a styptic that staunched the flow of blood and allowed wounds to heal much faster.
Given the growing importance of military action in the period, with the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674) and the Nine Years’ War (1689-1697), a medicine that could help out on the battlefield was invaluable. Practitioners were moving away from cauterizing wounds with heated instruments to stop blood loss and increasingly replacing it with tourniquets in combination with powders and liquids that could staunch wounds and accelerate the healing process. William Clowes, for example, used a styptic powder whose ingredients he guarded fiercely while Richard Wiseman used successfully the so-called “Royal Stiptick Water.”
Colbatch claimed that he did numerous animal experiments that proved his powder’s efficacy. As he stated, “I began to make Experiments upon Dogs and other Animals, Wounding them in the most desperate manner I could contrive; and in about a Hundred Experiments that I made, I had not above five that miscarried.”
London surgeons felt this too good to be true and responded with everything from polite disbelief to outright scorn. Did Colbatch, a mere apothecary, stumble upon a revolutionary new method of treating wounds? Or was he yet another quack on the London landscape?
Cowper, a noted surgeon and anatomist, decided to replicate Colbatch’s experiments to test the powder himself. In a letter published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, he noted: “THE Report of Wonderful Cures wrought by Mr. Colbatch’s Styptick Pouder, so entertained the Expectations of divers Persons, that amongst others I thought my self obliged to obtain some convincing Proofs of its Operations.”
To begin, Cowper experimented on two dogs, applying Colbatch’s Vulnerary Powder to their wounds. In both cases, the dogs recovered suitably and Cowper and his colleagues were excited, their hopes raised that Colbatch had, indeed, developed a powder that could help save lives.
Keeping in mind the successful animal experiments, Cowper and his colleagues made their way to London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and applied the powder to two amputation stumps. First, that of a man who had his arm amputated above the elbow and second, that of a young teenage boy who had his leg amputated below the knee.
In both cases, Colbatch’s powder proved ineffective. A disappointed Cowper prepared his report on the unsuccessful experiment and sent it to the Royal Society. Cowper’s report in the Phil. Trans. hid nothing. Colbatch’s supposedly mild styptic powder put both patients in “extravagant pains” and upon removing the styptic and bandages, the amputation site on both patients looked as if they had been cauterized. The observers were duly horrified; Colbatch’s styptic, its function finally witnessed, was deemed a failure while Colbatch’s claims were dismissed as lies.
Colbatch was furious and decried Cowper’s assessment. Indeed, as he wrote later, the experiment’s outcome must have been fabricated by jealous detractors.
Writing in 1699, Colbatch claimed that he had visited the patients the day after the experiment was performed and found them both well and happy with the treatment. As he wrote, “before I was capable of speaking to him [the adult male patient], he rose up in his Bed, and prayed most heartily for me, telling me he believed no man, that ever had an Arm cut off, was so well as he.”
And last, to prove that the powder really was caustic, W.W. had it tested by chymists only to discover that it consisted primarily of three inexpensive and easily obtained ingredients: Dantzic vitriol of copper (a sulfate), sugar of lead for added flavour, and a bit of dragon’s blood to dye it red.
The Dantzic vitriol was likely copper sulfate, a green caustic powder consisting of copper and small amounts of iron that was beaten until it turned white. Sugar of lead or lead acetate is a toxic water soluble compound that was historically used as a sweetener and later medically as an astringent. Dragon’s blood, a plant-based resin, was used as a wound coagulant historically but may have been added to the recipe for aesthetic purposes.
Taken together, these ingredients could not have had the almost miraculous wound-healing effect described by its inventor. Rather, as W.W. concluded “the best Way of applying of it [the Vulnerary Powder] will easily appear to be to throw it into some nasty Puddle of Water; which by its Filth, is excused from the use of Man and Beast.”
Colbatch had numerous surgeons and physicians against him. Repeated experiments and publications questioned his medical theories and cures. Indeed, W.W. went so far as to analyze and critique almost every cure Colbatch wrote about. Yet, none of this could ruin Colbatch’s reputation once and for all because the most important people – the patients – were either not listening, not caring, or not believing. Despite being blacklisted by many a medical practitioner, the upstart apothecary from Worcestershire died Sir John Colbatch, a wealthy, knighted physician.
Bio: Samantha Sandassie is a historian of early modern medicine whose work focuses on surgery in seventeenth-century England. She blogs over at Panacea and can be found on Twitter @medhistorian.
 John Colbatch, Novem Lumen Chirurgicum (London: printed for D. Brown, 1695), “To the Reader.”
 William Cowper, “An Account of some EXPERIMENTS lately made on Dogs,” Philosophical Transactions 18 (1694), 42.
 Colbatch, Novum Lumen, “To the Reader.”
 Colbatch, A Collection of Tracts (London: printed for Dan. Brown, 1699), 70-71.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 63.