15 Terrifying 18th Century Remedies for What Ails You
Could you imaging cutting, burning, and bleeding someone who is having a stroke? Or rubbing poisonous lead on someone to cure their rectal cancer? Welcome to just a couple of the remedies in The Book of Phisick, a remarkably legible, handwritten recipe book of natural remedies. It was initially written by an unknown author in 1710 and subsequently added to by different anonymous hands for years. The recipes, for the most part, involve using plants and minerals to battle everything from bad breath to cancer. Some of the treatments can still be found in non-Western approaches to medicine; others appear to be a sure way to hasten the death of the patient. All of them will make you a little more tolerant of your insurance co-pays.
1. "For the Biteing of a Mad Dog"
Rabies is almost always fatal unless the infected person is given the modern two-week treatment regimen of shots to help their body identify and fight the virus. The treatment prescribed in Phisick is hopelessly insufficient—and cruel, considering the hydrophobia that usually accompanies rabies:
Take 40 grains of ground liverwort and 20 grains of pepper in half a pint of milk…take this quantity four mornings together, then use of Cold Bath, every other day, a month.
Phisick also provides a contingency treatment “if the madness is begun.” Sip a tea made of cinnabar, musk, and syrup of cloves with a booze chaser, and “stay thirty days, before you repeat it.” If the symptoms associated with madness have already begun, 30 days of doing nothing would see the end of many patients—but unfortunately, so would 30 days of any other treatment in this era.
2. "To Kill Black Worms in the Face"
For a long time, people thought blackheads were tiny worms burrowed into the skin, and you can see how easily the assumption could be made by watching some of the many blackhead extraction videos on YouTube. (Do not watch while eating.) The successful removal of blackheads yielded what was considered to be the tiny corpse of the offending vermin. The recipe was simple: red wine vinegar, prunella, and nightshade water. Prunella is very common in herbal medicine all over the globe even today, prescribed as a general “heal-all.” The nightshade water (still available for purchase for both medicinal and culinary purposes) was probably what was left over from boiling the berries and leaves of the solanum nigrum plant. That would have made it Black Nightshade, which—though still toxic in high enough quantities—is nowhere near as poisonous as its cousin Deadly Nightshade. Probably just poisonous enough to flush out all the tiny worms nesting in your face.
2. "White Lead Plaister"
White lead was used as a miraculous panacea for centuries. Smearing it over a person’s back was said to prevent miscarriage and cure “the bloody flux” (a.k.a. unstoppable, often fatal diarrhea). Practitioners believed that, when applied to the stomach, it could provoke appetite and soothed The King’s Evil—painless but unsightly infected lymph nodes, so called because it was believed that the touch of a sovereign ordained by God could cure it. It was also believed to be good for swellings, bruises, drawing out infection, and any problems you might be having with your “fundament” (bottom). Once made, the concoction would be good for 20 years.
White lead, or lead acetate, is an astringent, and can tighten and reduce swelling blood vessels and pores. The fatally high toxicity of white lead was either unknown or simply not a major concern for the people of the 18th century. After all, the effects of lead poisoning—general ill health, decreased life span, dangers to fetal development and even childhood mortality—were an expected part of life in the era. It would have been difficult to pinpoint white lead as a unique source of any of those ailments.
4. "A Pleasent Purge"
It makes sense, if you think about it: To get well, citizens of the 18th century believed, you had to flush whatever was making you sick out of your body. Therefore, purgatives (any substance that would make a patient expel whatever was in his digestive system, usually through diarrhea) were a huge part of pre-19th century medicine—even if your sickness had nothing to do with your digestive system.
The Book of Phisick contains recipes for multiple laxatives. The “Pleasent” one is a mixture of “manna” (dried sap of the South European Ash tree) and lemon juice. But if you wanted a something strong enough to kill intestinal worms—which were very common until chemical pesticides were widely used—and strengthen a weak stomach, you’d use aloe instead of ash. The gelatinous part of the plant could be rolled into pills and fed to the patient. (Though we mostly think of aloe in relation to skin, studies show it may be helpful in inflammatory bowel disease.)
Though they were seen as a cure-all in the 18th century, purgatives actually had the opposite effect: They emptied a patient of desperately needed water, leaving him weak and depleted, but with the same strep throat he had before being put on a strict regimen of continuous stomach cramps and pooping.
5. "An Oyntment For a Cancer in the Breast"
Breast cancer has appeared throughout recorded history since ancient Egypt, although it wasn’t usually attended to until the tumor became painful or noticeable through the skin. Phisick's hopeful remedy contains ingredients like sage, bay leaves, chamomile, and red roses, all left to mature in a dunghill for precisely eight days.
Toward the end of the 18th century, new doctors were challenging the ideas that breast cancer was caused by not enough sex, too much sex, childlessness, too much black bile, or depression. The idea of radical mastectomy as treatment was in its infancy (if you have a strong stomach read Fanny Burney’s account of her own pre-anesthetic mastectomy here). But for the most part, people still treated breast cancer with topical salves. Even if there was no reason to believe it would work, it’s human nature to keep trying.
6. "To Stop Bleeding"
One of the main problems with this recipe is that it doesn’t specify what kind of bleeding it seeks to stop. The other is that its active ingredient is the very harmful white lead, which works as a styptic for wounds. Nineteenth century doctors would use it during surgeries, immediately covering amputated limbs with copious amounts, but the directions given in Phisick don’t say anything about applying to a wound:
Make bolster of linnen, dip one in the [lead] water and apply to the pit of the stomack. If that does not doe one to each wrist & two to the soales of feet.
Based on books published later, we can infer that this is a recipe for treating hemorrhaging. In Materia medica, written 170 years after Phisick, sugar of lead (another name for white lead) is still recommended for all kinds of internal hemorrhaging, including bronchial, intestinal, renal, and uterine. By first applying the lead poultice to the belly, it would appear to be an attempt to control one or all of the three latter. And even though sugar of lead was easily absorbed into the skin, the potential conditions causing these hemorrhages—typhoid fever, kidney failure, miscarriage—likely needed more than a styptic.
7. "A Good Surfeit Water and proper for the Gripes"
Surfeit water was the Alka-Seltzer of 1710—a way to settle a tummy that had enjoyed a surfeit of indulgence; the water in question was usually alcohol. The recipe also indicates that it can be used to make gripe water, which soothed a fussy baby. Gripe water is still used today, but not this formulation, which seems more appropriate for a fussy Velociraptor: The recipe required a gallon of brandy and as many mature poppy leaves—which would have been heavy with opium—as could be stuffed into a container. The concoction was left to steep for a few days, strained, and then mixed with some nice liquors to make it more palatable; “3 or 4 spoonfuls at a time is enough” for an adult. And for children, just two, with a little water. It was probably incredibly effective—unconscious people are seldom bothered by stomach upset.
8. "For the Colick"
Phisick included many recipes for soothing a child’s upset stomach, not all of which were opiate-based. But you might opt for the poppy seed remedy before using this recipe, which, to start, involved frying the dung of pigeons and then applying the resulting paste to the child’s navel. And that’s the least distasteful part of the treatment: The child is also to be given an enema of hot milk, “or fryed oates, or chamomile, or a bag of sand, or a hot Tyle.” (Elsewhere in Phisick it is indicated that a bag of hot sand or a hot tile are to be applied to an upset stomach externally—though how many poor kids had to endure sand in the bum due to poor sentence structure we’ll never know.)
The last part of the treatment is one we’re vaguely familiar with, preserved in a crude colloquialism usually used to question someone’s truthfulness: Special enema devices—called “glisters” in Phisick but also written as “Clysters”—were used to force tobacco smoke into the bowels. Tobacco smoke was thought to be a catch-all stimulant, and was used rectally for everything from resuscitating drowning victims to halting epileptic seizures.
9. "For an Apoplexy"
Someone who has undergone an apoplexy was identified by “all the senses taken away on a sudden.” We seldom use that term now because we know the condition of “all senses taken away on a sudden” is caused by many different, extremely serious maladies, such as stroke, internal hemorrhage, or brain aneurysm. Treatment for such illnesses in the 18th century was nothing short of torture: First, bleed the patient, letting 16 or 18 ounces of blood (about two cups), which was believed to cleanse the body of bad blood, stimulate the circulatory system, and balance the humors. It was usually done with a fleam, a metal strip with a sharp triangular head specifically designed to puncture veins. The blood would then drip into a bowl made especially for the purpose.
Next, the patient would be cupped and scarified. This involved heating special cups—usually made of metal, glass, or ceramic—over fire to near red-hot. Then, the cups were applied to the skin, burning it and simultaneously creating a vacuum, raising a tremendous welt. If the skin was pierced with a scarificator beforehand, the result would be a “wet cupping,” because the cup would fill with blood. The recipe also prescribed blistering the neck and arms, which was the same process but without the scarificator. (Click here to see the process, still used in some healing circles, but be warned, it’s not pleasant.)
Unfortunately, this poor apoplectic creature’s treatment isn’t over yet. Next comes “strong glisters” (enemas) and the holding of a red hot fire shovel near their head. This is followed by the administration of a negligible poultice of spice to the soles of the feel, and submerging the patient’s hands in near boiling water.
10. "Falling Sickness"
Phisick says this malady “is known by falling down sudainly, strugling, and a white froth coming out of their mouths.” Today, we call it epilepsy. The prescribed treatment is the closest Phisick comes to out and out hocus pocus: The hair of a strong young man, as well as “the bone that grows in the legg of a deer,” must be cooked and powdered, then fed to the patient in the amount “as much as will lye on a groat two days before the new moon.” A full moon was considered to be one of the worst times for a person who suffered epilepsy, as it was believed it triggered madness (thus the “luna” in lunatic).
11. "For Convulsion Fits in Children"
While most of these medicinal recipes have some semblance of logic, there are a few that leave the reader hopelessly confused. To cure fits in children, for example, it is recommended to take a “live pigions rump” and clap it to the rear-end of the unfortunate child. The bird will struggle and “It will draw away the fits and grow weak and dye, so apply another till the fits leave it.” This treatment—the application of a pigeon’s “fundament” to the affected area—is also prescribed to drain venom from a snake bite.
12. "For a Speck in the Eyes"
If you’re thinking the answer lies in a good dousing from a bucket of well water, you’re under-thinking this situation. Those hoping to get rid of eye specks were to “Take urine and put it in a pewter dish,” then place another pewter dish on top of it to collect the condensation rising as the bottom dish is heated. Then, the special pee water is collected and dropped into the eye.
The application of this special water promised to “lessen the speck, clear the eyes, and is an excellent remedy for any sore eyes.” Interestingly, the use of urine as eyewash is still practiced today, although largely frowned on by the medical community.
13. "To Take of Superfluous Hair"
For an era that had few qualms about partaking in some of the most dangerous poisons and disgusting concoctions available in nature, Phisick’s hair-removal secret was quite tame: Simply mix saltwater with “fasting spittle,” spit taken from the mouth early in the morning before eating. It was thought to have special curative properties, and was even mentioned in the Bible. Sadly, it’s not well known for its ability to break down keratin.
14. "For the Head Ache"
Phisick offers an array of simple headache cures. Some are almost shockingly reasonable (drink strong coffee or tea), some are expectedly odd (comb head upwards and stroke with nutmeg and vinegar), and some are just right back in the “oh 18th century, no” category (make vomit, draw blood from temple, blister neck). The headache is one of those maladies which we have learned to manage but have not eradicated. Many a migraine sufferer would gladly tie orange rind to their forehead and snort perfumed water (also advised treatments) if they thought for even a second it would work.
15. "For the Little White Worms in the Fundament"
Even in the 21st century, pinworms are still the most common worm infection in America, particularly among children. These parasites live in the rectum and lower intestines, and the females crawl out to lay their eggs during the night in the anal area. When kids scratch their itchy bums and touch things, they spread the eggs around to nearby hosts (usually other children). Today, there are a number of quick medications that can expel the worms, and natural remedies such as garlic also abound. But Phisick suggests creating a meat suppository, tied to a string, for brisk removal. The idea is that, if left to their own devices for a while, the worms will happily make their homes in the fake “host.” The suppository is then quickly removed, hopefully taking the unwanted interlopers with it. Process is to be repeated until all of the worms are gone.