Tag Archives: Surgery

Pain, poison, and surgery in fourteenth-century China

Yi-Li Wu

It’s hard to set a compound fracture when the patient is in so much pain that he won’t let you touch him. For such situations, the Chinese doctor Wei Yilin (1277-1347) recommended giving the patient a dose of “numbing medicine” (ma yao).  This would make him “fall into a stupor,” after which the doctor could carry out the needed surgical procedures: “using a knife to cut open [flesh], or using scissors to cut away the sharp ends of bone.” Numbing medicine was also useful when extracting arrowheads from bones, Wei said, enabling the practitioner to “use iron tongs to pull it out, or use an auger to bore open [the bone] and thus extract it.” More generally, Wei recommended using numbing medicines for all fractures and dislocation, for it would allow the doctor to manipulate the patient’s body at will.

Wei’s preferred numbing medicine was “Wild Aconite Powder” (cao wu san), and he detailed the recipe in his influential compendium, Efficacious Formulas of a Hereditary Medical Family (Shiyi dexiao fang), completed in 1337 and printed by the Imperial Medical Academy of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). In his preface, Wei affirmed that medical formulas were the foundation of medicine and that a doctor’s ability to cure depended on his ability to use these tools skillfully. Wei’s family had practiced medicine for five generations, and he synthesized their knowledge with that of other doctors to produce a comprehensive treatise encompassing internal medicine; the diseases of women and children; eye diseases; illnesses of the mouth, teeth, and throat; ulcers and swellings; and diseases caused by invasions of “wind” (ailments with sudden onset, including febrile epidemics and paralytic strokes). Numbing medicine appeared in Wei’s chapters on bone setting and weapon wounds.

Wei’s Wild Aconite Powder is the earliest datable recipe that I have found for surgical anesthesia in a Chinese text, and it is a valuable window onto practices that were largely transmitted orally, whether in medical families or from master to disciple.  Dynastic histories relate that the legendary doctor Hua Tuo (110-207) employed a formula called mafeisan  to render his patients insensible prior to cutting them, even opening up their abdomens to excise rotting flesh and noxious accumulations. Some scholars have hypothesized that mafeisan (literally “hemp-boil-powder) may have contained morphine or cannabis (ma), but its ingredients remain a mystery.  A text attributed to the twelfth-century physician Dou Cai (ca. 1146) recommended using a mixture of powdered cannabis and datura flowers (shan qie zi, also called man tuo luo hua) to put patients to sleep prior to moxibustion treatments, which in this text could involve a hundred or more cones of burning mugwort placed directly on the patient’s skin.  Wei Yilin’s recipe provides important additional textual evidence for a tradition of anesthetic formulas based on toxic plants, one that was clearly in circulation long before he wrote it down.

At least as far back as the Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica (3rd c.), medical authors had described aconite as highly toxic (for contemporary Roman views of aconite, see blogpost by Molly Jones-Lewis). In the right hands, however, aconite was a powerful drug, and part of the Chinese practice of using poisons to cure (see blogpost by Yan Liu).  Warm and acrid, aconite could drive out pathogenic wind and cold from the body, break up stagnant accumulations, and invigorate the body’s vitalities. In the language of Chinese yin-yang cosmology, it nourished yang—all that was active, heating, external, and ascending. The main aconite root was considered more toxic than the subsidiary roots (designated by the separate name fu zi, “appended offspring”), and the wild form was more potent than the cultivated variety.

Images of toxic medicinal plants from China’s most celebrated pharmacological work, Li Shizhen (1518-93), Compendium of Materia Medica (author’s preface dated 1590). Woodblock edition of 1603. Wild aconite is the middle image in the top row. Cultivated aconite (main and subsidiary roots) are in the bottom right corner. Image credit: National Library of China. Posted on-line at the World Digital Library.
Images of toxic medicinal plants from China’s most celebrated pharmacological work, Li Shizhen (1518-93), Compendium of Materia Medica (author’s preface dated 1590). Woodblock edition of 1603. Wild aconite is the middle image in the top row. Cultivated aconite (main and subsidiary roots) are in the bottom right corner. Image credit: National Library of China. Posted on-line at the World Digital Library.

Wei’s numbing recipe consisted of 13 plant ingredients, including the main roots of both wild and cultivated (Sichuanese) aconite, along with drugs known as good for treating wounds:

Young fruit of the honey locust (zhu yao zao jiao)
Momordica seeds (mu bie zi)
Tripterygium (zi jin pi)
Dahurian angelica (bai zhi)
Pinellia (ban xia)
Lindera (wu yao)
Sichuanese lovage (chuan xiong)
Aralia (tu dang gui)
Sichuanese aconite (chuan wu)
Five taels each[1]

Star anise (bo shang hui xiang)
“Sit-grasp” plant (zuo ru), simmered in wine until hot
Wild aconite (cao wu)
Two taels each

Costus (mu xiang), three mace

Combine the above ingredients. Without pre-roasting, make into a powder. In all cases of crushed or broken or dislocated bones, use two mace, mixed into high quality red liquor.

Wei most likely learned this formula from his great-uncle Zimei, a specialist in bonesetting and wounds. Its local origins are also suggested by its use of zuo ru, literally “sit-grasp”, a toxic plant whose botanical identity is unclear. However, according to the eighteenth-century Gazetteer of Jiangxi (Jiangxi tong zhi), sit-grasp was native to Jiangxi, Wei’s home province, and was used by indigenes to treat injuries from blows and falls.  While classical pharmacology focused on the curative effects of aconite, Wei’s anesthetic relied on aconite’s ability to stupefy and numb, while curbing its ability to kill. If an initial dose failed to make the patient go under, Wei said, the doctor could carefully administer additional doses of wild aconite, sit-grasp herb and the datura flower.

Additional images of toxic medicinal plants from Li Shizhen, Compendium of Materia Medica. Sit-grasp herb is in the middle of the top row, and datura flower in the middle of the bottom. Image credit: National Library of China. Posted on-line at the World Digital Library.
Additional images of toxic medicinal plants from Li Shizhen, Compendium of Materia Medica. Sit-grasp herb is in the middle of the top row, and datura flower in the middle of the bottom. Image credit: National Library of China. Posted on-line at the World Digital Library.

In subsequent centuries, as medical texts proliferated, we find additional examples of numbing medicines that employed aconite, datura, and other toxic plants, employed when setting bones and draining abscesses, and to numb injured flesh before repairing tears and lacerations to ears, noses, lips, and scrotums.  Such manual and surgical therapies are an integral part of the history of healing in China.

Yi-Li Wu is a Center Associate of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (US) and an affiliated researcher of EASTmedicine, University of Westminster, London (UK).  She earned a Ph.D. in history from Yale University and was previously a history professor at Albion College (USA) for 13 years.  Her publications include Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China (University of California Press, 2010) and articles on medical illustration, forensic medicine, and Chinese views of Western anatomical science.  She is currently completing a book on the history of wound medicine in China.

This research was funded by the Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Award “Beyond Tradition: Ways of Knowing and Styles of Practice in East Asian Medicines, 1000 to the present” (097918/Z/11/Z). I am also grateful to Lorraine Wilcox for directing me to the work of Dou Cai.


[1] The weight of the tael (Ch. liang) has varied over time, but during Wei’s lifetime would have been equivalent to 40 grams.  A mace (Ch. qian) is one-tenth of a tael.

‘This one is good’: Recipes, Testing and Lay Practitioners in Early German Print

By Tillmann Taape

Title illustration from Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation. © Wellcome Images

Having recently finished my doctoral thesis on the printed works of Hieronymus Brunschwig, which have previously featured on the Recipes Blog (here and here), I am delighted to contribute to this series of posts on testing and trying (for an overview, see our re-posted summary of the Testing Drugs and Trying Cures conference). What better opportunity to share how it all came together, and reflect on the role of recipes and testing in the narrative.

Hieronymus Brunschwig (c.1450–c.1530), a surgeon and apothecary from Strasbourg, wrote the first printed books on surgery and distillation. In my thesis, Hieronymus Brunschwig and the Making of Vernacular Medical Knowledge in Early German Print, I read these uncommonly practical and technical books alongside records from the Strasbourg archives, about the craft guilds and medical practice. This allows us to make sense of Brunschwig’s practical vernacular medicine in relation to local intellectual trends, different forms of healing, the local milieu of guilds and artisans, and early German print culture.

Brunschwig’s first book was the Cirurgia of 1497, the first surgical manual in print. This, of course, was an opportunity to codify and re-define surgery. Brunschwig revives the medieval tradition of what Michael McVaugh has termed rational surgery (i.e. a learned as well as a practical art), to educate trainee surgeons and to present their discipline as a respectable and useful trade. Emphasising the need for skilled hands as well as a working knowledge of the human body, Brunschwig defends surgery on two fronts: against learned physicians’ rhetoric of superiority, and against other craftsmen’s deep-seated anxieties about occupations which were in contact with sick and dead bodies.

A surgeon treating an abdominal wound. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Dis ist das Buoch der Cirurgia (Strasbourg, 1497). © Wellcome Images.

The later books on distillation, published in 1500 and 1512, open up to a wider readership, including not only medical artisans such as surgeons or apothecaries, but also the ‘common man’ – a middling social layer of literate citizens, householders and other lay practitioners. This new kind of medical reader, as I have discussed in a previous post and elsewhere, is emblematised in the figure of the ‘striped layman’ which appears in numerous woodcut illustrations throughout Brunschwig’s works.

A conspicuously stripy student, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

Many of the recipes and instructions in the distillation books are adjusted for this type of reader. They start from scratch and are rich in technical details which are not found elsewhere in print or, to my knowledge, in manuscript. Although Brunschwig engages with complex ideas about the nature of matter and its manipulation, such as John of Rupescissa’s notion of a ‘quintessence’ in all things, he re-works them into manageable, pedestrian remedies. Rather than pursuing Rupescissa’s heavenly panacea, Brunschwig uses distillation to produce a type of middle-class quintessences: although earth-bound and imperfect, they were reliable and effective remedies in the hands of laypeople.

Detailed woodcut images of distillation apparatus and instructions for its use. Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg, 1500). © Wellcome Images.

One overarching theme of my thesis is the artisan’s approach to understanding and manipulating nature. For a craftsman with no Latin, Brunschwig mined a surprising amount of knowledge from texts. But more importantly, I argue, he knew things through direct physical engagement with bodies, materials and technical processes. His books are full of instructions to probe wounds, check temperature by touch, inspect colour changes in the alembic, and smell or taste distilled remedies. His expertise was located as much in the body and its senses as in books.

Nonetheless, writing was a powerful tool for recording and communicating practical insights. From cautionary tales of exploding alembics to heroic accounts of successful cures, Brunschwig emphasises his own experience as a source of knowledge. The German term he uses for this type of knowledge, erfarung, is related to fahren, meaning ‘to travel’. In the early sixteenth century, it denoted a way of experiencing the world through one’s own senses, by moving through it or simply being in it in an active, attentive manner. Erfarung was compared, often unfavourably, to spiritual contemplation and introspection. Over time, however, doctors and students of nature such as Paracelsus came to see personal erfarung as the necessary labour of insight rather than a sinful distraction. The Book of Nature, they insisted, should be read with one’s feet. Brunschwig’s emphasis on his own and others’ erfarung was thus part of a larger vernacular culture of experiential knowledge, as well as learned debates about experientia which have often been the focus of historical accounts of a medical empiricism developing in the early modern period.

Recipes played a major part in Brunschwig’s codification of experiential medical knowledge. Some, as I have shown in a previous post, were presented in Latin pharmaceutical jargon likely unknown to laypeople. These recipes were closed to readers, who were meant to copy them out on a piece of paper and hand them to an apothecary who would manufacture the remedy according to his art and his experience. Although the great majority of recipes are in German, some of these are also presented as tried and tested, by Brunschwig himself or others, and do not call for ‘tweaking’ on the part of readers.

Other recipes, however, give alternative ingredients or leave the exact composition up to the practitioner’s judgment. Many recipes come without the author’s seal of approval, and their sheer number makes it seem unlikely that Brunschwig could have tested each one. Such ‘open’ recipes leave room for improvisation and testing. The ongoing work of erfarung runs on into readers’ own practice, and often spills out into the margins of Brunschwig’s printed books. In many surviving copies, early modern healers from different walks of life marked recipes with a magisterial probatum est, or a simple vernacular note such as ‘this one is good’.

In some of the earliest medical works in print, Brunschwig addresses a readership of lay healers and ‘common men’ which would come to represent a significant portion of the early German print market. Through his use of recipes embedded within a culture of erfarung, he involved his vernacular readers in a continued effort of empirical trying and testing.

Pursuing the themes of recipes and artisanal knowledge, I am delighted to be joining the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University this summer, and look forward to sharing our work on making, testing, and trying, which has previously featured on this blog.


To break or not to break (Part 2): From Cairo to Dordrecht

By Saskia Klerk, with Sietske Fransen

In the eleventh chapter of his Steen-Stuck (Treatise on the Stone, 1637), Johan van Beverwijck related a story of an encounter in Dordrecht, the Dutch city where he was town physician. A man had shown him the pieces of stone that he said had been broken by the following recipe. Van Beverwijck tried it himself, but had not found the same results. Still, he noted, the pieces of stone that the “trustworthy man” showed him, would together make up a large stone.

Broken bladder stones from Des monstres et prodiges (1573) by Ambroise Paré (c. 1510– 1590). From the Lyon edition of 1664.
Broken bladder stones from Des monstres et prodiges (1573) by Ambroise Paré (c. 1510– 1590). From the Lyon edition of 1664.

Around 1677, the compiler of Ms BPL 3606 copied this passage, leaving out Van Bever-wijck´s skeptical remark. Apparently, he found the display of broken stones, a tactic we have encountered before, to be persuasive proof of the recipe´s effectiveness.

When Sietske and I started our blog series on this Dutch recipe collection, I did not expect most of my posts to be about “stone breaking” remedies such as this one. However, they turned out to have been of particular interest to its compiler. By pursuing this interest, Sietske and I have learned quite a bit about him and his world. For example, we now suspect that he lived in or near the province of Zeeland in the south-west of the Dutch Republic. We also confirmed Sietske´s earlier observation, that the compiler especially noted down remedies that where accompanied by favorable experiences. In my last post, I showed that the compiler of BPL 3606 used Steen-Stuck´s tables of contents to find the information he was looking for.

As I continued studying the manuscript, the question of why there are so many stone-breaking remedies in it became more pressing. In an earlier post, Seth LeJacq laid out the persuasive answer that patients’ fears of surgery led them to explore alternative therapies. Master Reijmers´ story has shown us that the compiler of BPL 3606 shared these fears and desires. Perhaps, this is also key to understanding why he included not only so many recipes for stone breaking remedies in his manuscript, but also three other sections from Steen-Stuck that are not recipes.

Before the recipe, as a “Nota”, the compiler copied a short section on how the stone should be returned to the bladder if it got stuck in the bladder´s neck. In his Treatise on the Stone, Van Beverwijck suggested surgical options to actually remove the stone from the body as well. The compiler copied the most curious of these, after the recipe, as another “Nota”.

Alpinus told of this procedure in Cap. XIV of the third book of De medicina Aegyptiorum (1591) under the title "To remove stones without an incision"
Alpinus described this procedure in Cap. XIV of the third book of De medicina Aegyptiorum (1591) under the title “To remove stones without an incision”

This particular option advised sufferers to blow into the   urethra with a little pipe. Thereby extending it far enough to be able to remove a stone no larger than an olive pit. Despite his interest in the cure, the compiler omits the original source of this procedure, Van Beverwijck´s teacher in Padua, Prosper Alpinus (1553-1617) and the Egyptians amongst whom Alpinus had resided.

The inclusion of treatments such as these  further confirms the compiler´s anxiety towards actually cutting the body. Moreover, I would argue this anxiety was a factor in the transmission of this custom from faraway Egypt to this Dutch recipe collection. Alpinus explicitly mentioned the non-cutting aspect of the procedure in the title of the chapter in which he described it. Van Beverwijck repeated this aspect in Steen-Stuck, before going on to describe cutting the body to remove the stone as a last resort.

Finally, in his exploration of alternative therapies the compiler also recorded knowledge that by 1677 was outmoded to many of his contemporaries.

Section from Van Beverwijck´s, Steen-Stuck (1649) Ch. 11, pt. 4
Section from Van Beverwijck´s, Steen-Stuck (1649) Ch. 11, pt. 4
The same section copied in BPL 3606
The same section copied in BPL 3606

Van Beverwijck named several materials that possessed a stone breaking power. Some of these (such as lime zest and laurel) worked by a manifest quality and others (such as ashes of scorpio and woodlice) by a hidden property. In his note-taking, the compiler was careful to separate these into two lists.

The distinction between manifest and hidden or occult qualities was characteristic of academic Galenic medicine familiar to Van Beverwijck. It was fundamental to explaining the properties of medical materials. Was the way a material worked in the body “manifest”, that is, was it caused by the primary qualities (hot, dry, cold and moist)? Or could this “operation” not be explained from these qualities and was it therefore “hidden”? While this important distinction had come to be questioned by the 1620s, as I described elsewhere[1], Van Beverwijck included it without comment. Accordingly, when the compiler copied out this section, all that mattered to him was that the physician asserted the healing properties of these materials.

Here, the compiler´s fear of cutting the body thus resulted in a quite eclectic collection of materials, surgical techniques and a stone-breaking recipe, originating from as diverse places as Egypt and Dordrecht. Investigating his interest in alternative cures for bladder stones further, has also indicated the practical reasons behind the staying power of (parts of) Galenic medicine, despite its philosophical problems.

[1] Saskia Klerk, “The Trouble with Opium. Taste, Reason and Experience in Late Galenic Pharmacology with Special Regard to the University of Leiden (1575–1625),” Early Science and Medicine, vol. 19, issue 4 (2014): 287-316.

Remedies, Surgery and Domestic Medicine

Editors’ note: This post provides a sneak peek of Seth LeJacq’s fascinating article, “The Bounds of Domestic Healing: Medical Recipes, Storytelling and Surgery in Early Modern England“, which recently appeared in the Social History of Medicine. You should go read the whole article! An early version of the article was awarded the 2010 Roy Porter Student Essay Prize by the Society for the Social History of Medicine. The essay prize is a wonderful opportunity for undergraduate and postgraduate students to submit unpublished, original essays. Congratulations, Seth!

By Seth LeJacq

I began poking around in the manuscript recipe collections in the New York Public Library’s Whitney Cookery Collection during my summer research a few years ago, and I was struck by the wide array of ailments different recipes addressed. I was particularly surprised to find many remedies for surgical complaints, and that some recipes also included stories about the efficacy of remedies claiming that they had succeeded when sufferers were “given over” by doctors or had allowed them to avoid invasive surgical interventions.

Dropsy - St John
Johanna St John’s recipe book, Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 49r. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Another [for the dropsy]. Eat an handfull of Raisins and a crust of bread or a sea Bisquit in the morning, and drink not till noon, and then eat a peice of bread when you drink this cured Mrs Hearing who was to have been tapp’d.

These simple instructions in the Johanna St John collection, for instance, were said to have “cured” dropsy sufferer “Mrs Hearing, who was to have been tapp’d.” That is, by using this recipe she was saved from having to undergo surgery to drain fluid from her body. I discussed similar sorts of recipes claiming to help avoid breast surgeries in an earlier post. These sorts of recipes show that domestic healers thought they might need to be able to deal with serious surgical complaints. They also show that they were interested in finding alternatives to unpleasant and dangerous surgical therapies.

Even when recipes did not explicitly bill themselves as medicinal alternatives to surgery, collectors may have seen them as implicitly offering such alternatives. Medicinal remedies for bladder stones and cataracts, for instance, would allow sufferers to avoid being cut.

One question I’d still like to answer is whether people may have seen other sorts of recipes in this way. Take childbirth-related recipes. There are many recipes to help with delivery in stillbirth, for instance, such as this recipe, also from the Johanna St. John collection.

Johanna St John’s recipe book, Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 211r. Source: Wellcome Library.
Johanna St John’s recipe book, Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 211r. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

To bring forth a Dead Child or Afterberth.

mugwort root or herbe wch is then most in strength boyle it in water tender stamp it fine put to it a little wheat chissel boyle it a little againe put it in a linnin Bag Lay it to the Bottom of her Belly as hott as she can suffer it.

Again, this is a fairly simple recipe that helps in a difficult and dangerous situation. What is interesting about recipes like this one is that surgeons claimed that they should be the ones to perform these deliveries. Lay collectors gathered a lot of medical knowledge belonging to the realm of midwives or surgeons. These recipes may be able to teach us more about the relationship between patients and these medical practitioners.

In fact, many recipes are intended to help people address medical complaints that surgeons treated. Early modern surgeons healed injuries and ailments on the exterior of the body, and they worked on keeping the body in good working order and aesthetically pleasing. Thus they could do a wide range of work, from setting broken bones, bleeding, and lancing boils, to cleaning teeth and beautifying the face. All of this was surgical work, and much of it is also found in various recipes circulating among collectors who didn’t work as medical practitioners. We even find recipes for serious surgical problems — fistulas or gangrene, for instance. Recipes of these sorts are common enough that it’s clear that many collectors wanted to (or felt they might need to) deal with problems that surgeons claimed as their own.

Surgeons were well aware that patients found some of their therapies unpleasant and consequently sought out alternatives, including domestic medicine. They sometimes even admitted that this impulse, and the practices of domestic healers, might have something to teach surgeons.

Equestrian portrait of Charles I and title page of the second edition of the Surgeon’s Mate (1639). Woodall’s is the center portrait at the bottom. Source: Wellcome Images.
Equestrian portrait of Charles I and title page of the second edition of The Surgeon’s Mate (1639). Woodall’s is the center portrait at the bottom. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Take the arguments for surgical reform in the published works of John Woodall (1570-1643). Woodall was an influential member of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, the first Surgeon General of the East India Company, and an important surgical author. His Surgions Mate (first edition 1617) went into multiple editions over a half-century. It was the foundational English text on sea surgery, but also had a broad influence among readers of all sorts.

A recipe from Woodall. (See the paper for similar examples). Lady Ayscough collection, Wellcome MS 1026, fol. 46r. Source: Wellcome Library.
A recipe from Woodall. (See the paper for similar examples). Lady Ayscough collection, Wellcome MS 1026, fol. 46r. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Woodall remains best known for his writings on scurvy (he was an early citrus booster!), but his works also present a critique of surgical education and practice. He argued that surgeons were sometimes too violent in cutting. He held that aggressive interventions did not allow patients to benefit from the healing power of nature. Woodall used the example of gentle female domestic healers as a model of practice that would allow nature to help. He wasn’t against cutting by any means — he was known for developing a tool to drill into the skull (just see the image below), and was an expert in amputation.

Surgical tools, including Woodall’s trefine. From the 1655 edition of The Surgeon’s Mate. Source: Wellcome Library.
Surgical tools, including Woodall’s trefine. From the 1655 edition of The Surgeon’s Mate. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

He was, however, receptive to criticisms of surgical practice, and very sensitive to patients’ fears of surgery and desires for alternative therapies. His work provides clear evidence that those fears and desires, which led people to collect the sorts of recipes we looked at above, had an influence on surgeons.

It’s easy to sympathise with patients’ fears of being cut; surgery was painful and potentially quite dangerous. Patients were clearly not content to simply suffer or submit to operations. Recipe books show that collectors wanted options when it came to serious surgical problems.