Tag Archives: mercury

Searching for Syphilis in Recipe Books

By Olivia Weisser

I have been on the search for syphilis – or venereal disease as it was known in England in the 1600s and 1700s. In that era, there was one broad disease category, “venereal disease,” for what we know now to be different STDs. Personal writing about venereal disease can be challenging to find because the disease was stigmatizing and disfiguring. Few individuals admitted to having venereal disorders in letters to healers and even fewer wrote about their experiences in personal writing. And yet the disease was rampant by the early decades of the 1700s. I set out for the archives with the hope that recipe books might provide rare glimpses into the private side of the disease. Of course, recipe books are by no means private forms of writing. In many instances, they were cherished objects bequeathed to friends or passed down through families. Yet the stigma of the disease created a market for treatment at home. Recipes, I hoped, could offer insights into that domestic practice.

I found a large number of recipes aimed at particular ailments, such as the falling sickness, but only a rare few targeted venereal disorders. One of these entries is from a 1680 book owned by Johanna St John. She recorded a remedy for treating heat and inflammation in venereal sores.

Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127
Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127

Recipes like this one are few and far between—but why? Perhaps venereal treatments were mostly cure-alls that are difficult to trace to one particular set of ailments. Peter Temple‘s “Balsome for wounds” treated 42 different disorders, for instance. Or perhaps authors chose not to label venereal cures as such in order to protect their reputations. Temple was openly interested in remedies for venereal disease, but he did not always categorize them as anti-venereals in his recipe book. He titled one entry “A drinke to heale any wound old greefe or sore,” which does not indicate a venereal cure. But at the bottom of the entry he added: “I believe this more proper for a wound given by one of venus fayr nimph.”

The ingredients in Temple’s wound drink are also telling. Several were believed to work as anti-venereals, including sarsaparilla and guaiacum. Instead of searching for a particular set of ailments, I started combing recipe books for ingredients associated with venereal cures. The most popular of these was mercury. Mercurial remedies took the form of pills, drinks, ointments, and even smoke that patients inhaled, and they were comprised of mercury in all of its forms: calomel, sublimate, liquid quicksilver, and cinnabar (mercury mixed with sulfur). Ingesting mercury causes excessive salivation, a reaction that today we associate with mercury poisoning. But within the humoral framework of health–in which abundant, imbalanced, or clogged fluids were thought to cause illness–prolific salivation was evidence of a potentially curative bodily transformation.

Caption: Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London
Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London

I found several recipes for mercurial ointments and waters. They were said to be good for treating itch, inflammation, ulcers, fistulas, or “old soares” – all common symptoms of venereal disorders. There were, it seems, recipes for venereal disease after all. They were just a bit tricky to find.

One recipe for mercury water was said to cure “all manner of Ulcers, Cancers, Fistulaes, the wolfe, and such other like infirmities & diseases.” Others targeted the physical effects of mercurials themselves. Here’s a recipe for curing bad breath caused by consuming mercury — one of the drug’s many conspicuous side effects.

A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13
A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13

This recipe calls for holding a piece of gold in the mouth, not the most accessible ingredient.

A recipe from Mary Birkhead’s book treated the bodily effects of consuming mercury:

Take the roots of marsh mallows gathered in the beginning of nouember and dried and kept till you haue ocation to use them take of the powder of the said roots halfe a spoonful and giue it to the patient in warme milke a good draught this euery 2 or 3 howers for 3 or 4 times but first giue the partey a vomit of a quarter of a pinte of salet oyle with bloud warme water.

My search for venereal disease in recipe books suggests that some authors were ashamed enough to veil or downplay the anti-venereal dimensions of their remedies. More broadly, my search points to an important lesson of historical research: the inability to find what we are looking for in the archive can be, itself, something worth knowing.

Recipes for Curing Syphilis from Colonial Mexico

By Heather R. Peterson, Assistant Professor of History University of South Carolina, Aiken

Syphilitic man attributed to Albrecht Dürer (1496) Credit Wiki Commons

While there is debate about the origins of syphilis, most Spanish doctors in the sixteenth century followed the physician Nicolas de Monardes in believing it to be of New World origin. Because the disease had appeared and spread so suddenly, Albrecht Dürer and others supposed that the new disease was caused by an astrological conjunction. But Monardes pinpointed the moment of European transmission to Columbus’s return voyage. He supposed that there must have been sexual concourse between the Indians Columbus brought back and all of the armies of Europe who were assembled in Naples; they then spread the disease throughout Europe.[1]

Confronted with curing this new disease, Spanish doctors looked to New World medicinal herbs arguing that where God had planted the seed of contagion, he would also plant the remedy. Eager to understand the new pharmacopeia the Crown sent doctors, such as Francisco Hernandez, and included questions regarding local herbs and cures in the Relaciones geographicas, an ambitious survey of the lands and peoples in the Spanish realms (1580). While the reports identified a number of local cures for syphilis, such as chupirini, which apparently caused the genitals to go on fire, or the herbs administered by female doctors in Oaxaca chinanteca and matlacaptl, only mechoacán, a powerful emetic became a staple part of the Spanish pharmacopeia.[2]

File:A three-headed eagle in a crowned alchemical flask, represen Wellcome V0025636.jpg
An alchemist’s flask decorated with a three-headed eagle representing mercury sublimated three times. Splendor solis, attributed to Salomon Trismosin (1532). Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Many young doctors also made the voyage, hoping to capitalize on first hand experience of native cures. In his 1567 treatise, Pedro Arias de Benavides touted the New World origins of his cure for syphilis, which he claimed to have practiced and “perfected” during an eight-year stay in New Spain. The secret to Arias’s cure was mercury, the alchemists’ prima materia, which he argued opened the channels of the body to receive the herbs and oils. Arias had first witnessed a mercury cure in Salamanca, but claims that his cure was an improvement over the first, which left the cleric “cured” but missing four teeth. Though he claimed it was a New World cure, Arias’ recipe involved items such as theriac (which contained opiates from the Near East), pork fat, and three unguents, two of which refer to regions or places in Spain “aragon” and “dealtea” (de Altea contained fenugreek, a root from India that was probably introduced to Spain under the Moors) suggesting the transfer of pharmaceuticals went both directions. [3] What follows is a transcription of Arias’s recipe.

Doctor Pedro Arias de Benavides’s cure for Morbo Galico (1567)

Mix three quarts of mercury, weighing a mark, with theriac and beat it in the mortar until it is “dead,” which you will know because it does not return to mix although you throw a drop of oil in the mortar, and thus being well mortified, take the mixture from there, and beat six ounces of pork fat without salt, very ground up, and cleaned of all the little veins and nerves that it has, and this being well ground, return to incorporate it with the theriac and the mercury, and leave it there for fifteen minutes.

I have for certain that the theriac quits the harm of the mercury, for the following, because the teeth stay very firm and whiter than before (!) and [patients] are able to chew after the cure, because it does not impede the teeth, because this cure expels [the humors] through the stool and urine. This being so copious that there are men who will urinate thirty or forty times in a day, and it stinks so much that there is not a person who does not suffer from the stench of the urine.

Then in two days I give them one ounce of the unguent “macieton” and another ounce of “aragon” and another of “dialtea.” Later I would incorporate all of these unguents, and let them sit for two days, and after this time, I threw in four ounces of ash of vine shoot and another half of mastic, and another half of incense, and one clove, and another cinnamon, all well sifted, and oil of berry and of chamomile, of each one ounce, and three of oil of brick. And if you want to fortify this unguent for the more robust, throw in a half-dram of “euforbio” but if it is during a hot season I do not throw in any. This unguent has the property that it may go bad later, because all the things that are in it are good and noble and are incorporated, they make a good operation, as will be seen by whomever experiments with it.

Arias did not think that the mercury was a medicine in itself, but that it opened the channels of the body for the real medicine: the mixture of herbs. He argued that bubos was caused by an abundance of melancholy in the body, and noted that though it was normally spread by concourse with “unclean women” it could also arise from a corruption of the humors in the body, as must have been the case for the first person to have the illness. This sort of bubos, he claims to have seen among “very honored clerics, who could not be doubted,” and he sought to restore their honor from suspicion.

[1] Nicolás Monardes, Primera y Segunda y Tercera Partes de la Historia Medicinal de las Cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven en Medicina (Sevilla: Alonso de Escrivano, 1574), 13-13v.

[2] Anonimo, Relaciones Geográficas de la Díocesis de Michoacán Papeles de Nueva España (Guadalajara 1958), 12, 57. Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, ed. Relaciones Gegráficas de la Diócesis de Oaxaca vol. Tomo IV, Papeles de Nueva España (Madrid La Real Casa: Paseo de San Vicente núm 20, 1905), Atlatlauca y Malinaltepec, Item 17, pp. 172-73.

[3] For a recipe for unguent of de Altea see: http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/journals/ajp1885/11-mex-prep.html  For the recipe for theriace see the list of ingredients for the Amsterdammer Apotheek (1683) on: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theriac

[4] See the list of ingredients for the Amsterdammer Apotheek (1683) on: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theriac


Seiseinyū and secrets: problems of recipe attribution in early modern Japan

In my last post, I looked at the problems faced by early modern Japanese doctors trying to figure out how to manufacture a new mercurial drug called seiseinyū, which had first appeared in the Chinese doctor Chen Sicheng’s Secret Record of Syphilis (1636). Yet although Japanese doctors eventually found ways to produce seiseinyū, the complicated movement of books and ideas between China, Europe and Japan during this period meant that even doctors who knew how to make the drug could be confused about where their recipes had come from.

The syphilis doctor Tokujitsu Junchoku, hero of Funakoshi Kinkai’s “Illustrated Syphilis War Tales” (Ehon baisō gundan, 1838). Courtesy of Waseda University Library.

One of the most detailed manuscript recipes for seiseinyū was written down in the late eighteenth century by a doctor called Haruhi Gen’an. Gen’an claimed this recipe had been passed down in his family since the time of his ancestor Haruhi Genryō, who in turn had received it from a Dutch doctor called “Seirukettan” in Nagasaki in 1711. Gen’an believed that the Dutch themselves were reluctant to share this secret recipe, and he took great pride in his lineage’s knowledge of it; imagine his surprise, then, when he discovered that Chen Sicheng’s Secret Record of Syphilis, which had recently been reprinted in Japan, contained a recipe identical to the one his family had for generations been treating as secret.

After some thought, Gen’an came up with an explanation for what had happened: just as his ancestor had learned the recipe from the Dutch doctor Seirukettan, the Chinese had also learned about the recipe from European visitors in the early seventeenth century, and Chen Sicheng had tried to pass the recipe off as his own. Indeed, it is curious to note that Chinese and European doctors started using mercurial drugs to treat syphilis quite soon after the disease’s arrival, and difficult to rule out the possibility that maritime contacts might have allowed one medical culture to learn the idea from the other. However, European and East Asian mercurial therapies for syphilis differed in their details, and it seems safer to conclude that they developed independently.

An army of antisyphilitic drugs defeats the syphilis demons. Funakoshi Kinkai, Illustrated Syphilis War Tales (1838). Courtesy of Waseda University Library.

But why did the Haruhi lineage attribute their seiseinyū recipe to the mysterious Dutch doctor “Seirukettan”? It isn’t possible to offer a definitive answer to this question, but a little background knowledge concerning the circulation and uses of medical texts in eighteenth-century East Asia is enough to suggest a plausible hypothesis.

Patients seeking treatment for syphilis tended to seek out specialists in “wound medicine” (yōka), a field that included the application of topical cures as well as surgical techniques. Eighteenth-century Japanese doctors were highly receptive to learning about European surgery and anatomy, which were much more developed than their East Asian counterparts at that time; it would thus be unsurprising for a Japanese practitioner of wound medicine to think of a cure for syphilis as more likely to be European than Chinese.

Nevertheless, Japanese practitioners of wound medicine would also have known about the Chinese surgical tradition and probably would have kept some classic Chinese treatises on surgery in their library. One such treatise was the Complete Book of Proven Remedies for Wounds and Ulcers (Chuangyang jingyan quanshu 瘡瘍經驗全書): the first edition of this book was produced in 1569, and an expanded edition published in 1717 included an additional chapter entitled “The Secret Record of Syphilis” – this was none other than Chen Sicheng’s book, incorporated into the new edition without attribution.

Early modern Japanese doctors often made their own manuscript copies of such medical treatises, especially if the only available printed versions were expensive editions imported through Nagasaki. Sections of multiple books could be copied into a single manuscript volume or a single book could be copied into several separate volumes; as a result, authorial attributions and the status of chapters as sections of larger works could easily become unclear. If something like this had happened to the Haruhi family’s copy of the Complete Book of Proven Remedies for Wounds and Ulcers, the original source of their recipe for seiseinyū could easily become forgotten, giving rise to a family legend that the recipe derived from a Dutch doctor in Nagasaki.

Syphilis and seiseinyū: manufacturing a mercurial drug in early modern Japan

The Syphilis King consults with his minions prior to launching an invasion of the human body. Funakoshi Kinkai, “Illustrated Syphilis War Tales” (Ehon baisō gundan, 1838). Image courtesy of Waseda University Library.

Syphilis arrived in Japan in the early sixteenth century and spread rapidly through the country. The symptoms of the disease were severe but there was no truly effective treatment, and many patients thus turned in desperation to toxic substances such as corrosive sublimate (HgCl2, known in Japanese as keifun) in the hope that violent drugs might be able to expel the disease from their bodies.

A method for producing corrosive sublimate had been discovered by Chinese alchemists at least as early as the sixth century AD. The procedure involved mixing mercury, alum, and common salt into a paste and applying them to the base of a pottery vessel that was then sealed and heated over a fire while the lid was cooled with water. When the vessel was opened, the corrosive sublimate had condensed as small white crystals on the inner surface of the lid. The Japanese soon learned of and adopted this process, so by the time syphilis arrived in their country they had been manufacturing corrosive sublimate for nearly a thousand years.

Patients who consumed corrosive sublimate as a drug for syphilis would salivate and eventually suffer from suppuration of the mouth cavity. Doctors interpreted these effects as positive signs of the drug’s toxic efficacy, but the disease had an unfortunate tendency to return even after patients thought they had been cured, and there was a widespread desire for an improved formulation that might be able to cure the disease more permanently.

One such formulation was seiseinyū, a drug originally invented by the early seventeenth-century Chinese doctor Chen Sicheng. Chen had developed a large number of remedies making use of seiseinyū and published them in his book The Secret Record of Syphilis (Meichuang milu, 1636). This book was largely forgotten in China after his death, but a copy was brought to Japan and reprinted there, and it quickly became a standard reference for Japanese doctors who wished to treat syphilis using the latest Chinese methods.

Chen’s recipe for seiseinyū was similar to the standard recipe for corrosive sublimate, but it included a number of additional ingredients, the most prominent of which was an arsenical mineral called yoseki. Arsenical minerals were known to be highly toxic, but yoseki may have been included in the recipe for precisely this reason – either because doctors hoped that its toxicity would help expel the disease, or because they thought it might somehow balance the toxicity of the mercury in the recipe to yield a drug whose side effects were less severe than those of regular corrosive sublimate.

Illustration of a vessel for manufacturing corrosive sublimate and seiseinyū. Ishibashi Masaaki, “Essential Formulas for Syphilis” (Baidoku yōhō, 1810). Image courtesy of Waseda University Library.

Japanese doctors who wanted to make use of Chen Sicheng’s remedies needed to produce their own seiseinyū, but Chen’s description of his recipe was couched in unusual vocabulary that they often found difficult to interpret. Even a relatively common word like yoseki could lead to misunderstanding. In China, this word normally referred to arsenopyrite (FeAsS) or the related mineral loellingite (FeAs2); in Japan, however, this word was often understood to refer to arsenolite (As2O3), which was a common mineral obtained as a by-product from silver mines and sold commercially as “Iwami rat poison.” Many other variants of this mineral were available, ranging from a high-quality “peach-blossom” variety through yellow and white varieties to a low-quality grey variety; the choice among these varieties was thought to significantly effect the quality of the seiseinyū produced.

In contrast to the basic recipe, which was widely available in published form, these more subtle forms of manufacturing knowledge were usually passed down in secret by family lineages of doctors. It was not until the final decades of the eighteenth century that some doctors began to publish more straightforward popular accounts. In my next post, I will consider one of the more unusual consequences of this tradition of secrecy: that at least one lineage of doctors thought their family recipe for seiseinyū derived not from China, but from Europe.

Chinese and Japanese Names and Terms
J. keifun = C. qingfen 輕粉
J. seiseinyū = C. shengshengru 生生乳
J. yoseki = C. yushi 礜石
Chen Sicheng 陳司成
Meichuang milu 黴瘡秘錄
Funakoshi Kinkai 船越錦海
Ehon baisō gundan 絵本黴瘡軍談
Ishibashi Masaaki 石橋正炳
Baidoku yōhō 黴毒要方