How Our Fathers were Physicked.

By J. A. Langford, ll.d.

Delightful old Fuller tells us “Necessary and ancient their Profession ever since man’s body was subject to enmity and casualty.” There is no doubt of the necessity and antiquity of the doctor’s calling, but there is, without doubt, no profession in which such great and beneficent advance has been made in modern times as in the medical. The tortures which our fathers endured under the old treatment are terrible to think of. It was not enough that they were afflicted by disease; the pains which they had to suffer from the supposed remedies far exceeded those which nature imposed. Cupping, blistering, and especially bleeding, were the common applications in nearly all complaints, the Bleeding was also used as a preventive, which proverb truly tells us “is better than cure”; but in this case the supposed disease could scarcely have been worse than the supposed prevention. Five times in the year—“in September, before Advent, before Lent, after Easter, and at Pentecost”—were the periods at which men in health were accustomed to “breathe a vayne.” Besides letting of blood, the physician’s cane and the surgeon’s club were vigorously used on the unfortunate sufferers. Mr. J. C. Jeaffreson, in his very interesting “Book about Doctors,” says, “For many centuries fustigation was believed in as a sovereign remedy for bodily ailments as well as moral failings, and a beating was prescribed for an ague as frequently as for picking and stealing.” So what with the lancet and the stick combined, our fathers must indeed have shuddered at the approach of any of the “natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

The medicines of those good old times were of a very strange and objectionable kind. Some of the concoctions were composed of many ingredients, and were formed of abominable, not to say disgusting, materials. All nature was ransacked for out-of-the-way and horrible things which could be used as drugs and nostrums for suffering and gullible sufferers. In the reign of Charles II., Dr. Thomas Sherley “recommended a clumsy and inordinate administration of violent drugs” for gout. “Calomel he habitually administered in simple doses. Sugar of lead he mixed largely in his conserves; pulverized human bones he was very fond of prescribing; and the principal ingredient in his gout-powder was ‘raspings of a human skull unburied.’ But his sweetest compound was his ‘Balsam of Bats,’ strongly recommended as an unguent for hypochondriacal persons, into which entered adders, bats, sucking-whelps, earth worms, hogs’ grease, the marrow of a stag, and the thigh-bone of an ox.” A good idea of the things sold to a confiding public as cures for its ills may be gathered from two verses on Colonel Dalmahoy, a well-known—shall we say quack—of the past:—

“Dalmahoy sold infusions and lotions,
Decoctions, and gargles, and pills,
Electuaries, powders, and potions,
Spermaciti, salts, scammony, squills.

Horse aloes, burnt alum, agaric,
Balm, benzoine, blood-stone, and dill;
Castor, camphor, and acid tartaric,
With specifics for every ill.”

Metals and precious stones were extensively used in the prescriptions of bygone doctors. Every metal and every stone was credited with some special and peculiar virtue which it alone possessed, and it was applied as a cure for that ailment over which it had influence and power. Bacon tells us, “We know Diseases of Stoppings, and Suffocations, are the most dangerous in the body; And it is not much otherwise in the minde. You may take Sarza to open the Liver; Steele to open the Spleene; Flowers of Sulphur for the Lungs; Castoreum for the Braine,” for each of which parts it was believed that the specifics named were most efficacious. The prescriptions of Dr. Bulleyn, in the reign of Elizabeth, are wonderful examples of how our fathers were physicked. Here are two of those quoted by Mr. Jeaffreson. The first is

An Embrocation.—An embrocation is made after this manner:—Px. Of a decoction of mallowes, vyolets, barly, quince seed, lettice leaves, one pint; of barly meale, two ounces; of oyle of vyolets and roses, of each, an ounce and half; of butter, one ounce; and then seeth them all together till they be like a brouthe, puttyng thereto, at the ende, foure yolkes of eggs; and the maner of applying is with peeces of cloth, dipped in the aforesaid decoction, being actually hoate.”

Our second is “truly a medicine for kings and noblemen;” it is called an

Electuarium de Gemmis.—Take two drachms of white perles; two little peeces of saphyre; jacinth, corneline, emerauldes, grannettes, of each an ounce; setwal, the sweete roote dorsnike, the rind of pomecitron, mase, basal seede, of each two drachms; of redde corrall, amber, shewing of ivory, of each two drachms; rootes both of white and red lichen, ginger, long peper, spicknard, folium indicum, saffron, cardamon, of each one drachm; of troch diarodon, lignum aloes, of each half a small handful; cinnamon, galinga, zurnbeth, which is a kind of setwal, of each one drachm and a half; thin pieces of gold and sylver, of each half a scruple; of musk, half a drachm. Make your electuary with honey emblici, which is the fourth kind of mirobulans with roses, strained in equall partes, as much as will suffice. This healeth cold diseases of ye braine, harte, stomack. It is a medicine proved against the tremblynge of the harte, faynting and swooning, the weakness of the stomacke, pensiveness, solitarines. Kings and noble men have used this for their comfort. It causeth them to be bold-spirited, the body to smell wel, and ingendreth to the face good colour.”

The most innocent articles used in the old medicines were fruits, and herbs, and vegetables. To some kinds special virtues are assigned, and Dr. Bulleyn’s “Book of Simples,” is very pleasant reading. “Pears, apples, peaches, quinces, cherries, grapes, raisins, prunes, raspberries, oranges, medlons, raspberries and strawberries, spinage, ginger, and lettuces are the good things thrown upon the board.” We are told of a prune growing at Norwich, and known as the “black freere’s prune,” that it is “very delicious and pleasaunt, and no lesse profitable unto a hoate stomacke.” “The red warden is of greate virtue, conserved, roasted or baken to quench choller.” We are also informed that “Figges be good agaynst melancholy, and the falling evil, to be eaten. Figges, nuts, and herb grase do make a sufficient medicine against poison or the pestilence. Figges make a good gargarism to cleanse the throates.”

Some of the Doctor’s prescriptions are very curious. He prescribes “a smal young mouse rosted,” for a child afflicted with a nervous ailment. Nor did he disdain to use the snail in certain cases. He tells us that “Snayles broken from the shelles and sodden in whyte wyne with oyle and sugar are very holsome, because they be hoat and moist for the straightnes of the lungs and cold cough. Snails stamped with camphery, and leven will draw forth prycks in the flesh.” Snail broth is not entirely unknown in some country places, even at the present time. Bezoar stone and unicorn’s horn were also used in confections.

Cancer has always been, and unfortunately still is, a terrible and an incurable disease, and has afforded a fine field for all kinds of nostrums and specifics which were to produce a “safe and certain cure.” One of these, called a “precious water,” was thus composed. “Take dove’s foote, a herb so named, Arkangell ivy with the berries, young red bryer toppes, and leaves, whyte roses, theyre leaves and buds, red sage, celandyne and woodbynde, of each lyke quantity, cut or chopped and put into pure cleane whyte wyne, and clarified honey. Then breake into it alum glasse and put in a little of the pouder of aloes hepatica. Destill these together softly in a limbecke of glasse or pure tin; if not then in a limbecke wherein aqua vitæ is made. Keep this water close. It will not onely kyll the canker (cancer), if it be duly washed therewyth; but also two droppes dayly put into the eye wyll sharp the syght, and breake the pearle and spottes, specially if it be dropped in wyth a little fenell water, and close the eyes after.”

In 1739, the British Parliament passed an Act which is unprecedented in the annals of folly. A female quack, named Joanna Stephens, was reported to have effected some most extraordinary cures by the use of a medicine of which she only possessed the secret. She proposed to make it public for the sum of £5,000, and a vain attempt was made to raise the sum by subscription, but only £1,356 3s. was thus raised. An appeal was made to Parliament, and a commission was appointed to enquire into the subject, and a certificate signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishops, Peers, and Physicians, was presented to the House, declaring that they were “convinced by experiment of the utility, efficacy, and dissolving power,” of the tested medicine, and Joanna Stephens was rewarded with the desired £5,000. The prescriptions were published, and the following extracts will suffice to show how easily sufferers from diseases may be, and sometimes are, gulled. This lucky quack says:—

“My medicines are a Powder, a Decoction, and Pills.”

“The Powder consists of egg-shells and snails, both calcined.”

“The Decoction is made by boiling some herbs (together with a ball which consists of soap, swine’s-cresses burnt to a blackness, and honey), in water.”

“The Pills consist of snails calcined, wild carrot seeds, burdock seeds, asken keys, hips and hawes, all burnt to a blackness—soap and honey.”

Our readers will willingly dispense with the directions of how these dearly purchased medicines should be prepared. Surely

“The pleasure is as great,
In being cheated as to cheat!”

In 1633, Stephen Brasnell, Physician, published a small volume entitled “Helps | for | Svddain | Accidents | Endangering Life. | By which | Those that live farre from Physitions or Chirurgions | may happily preserve the Life | of a true Friend or Neigh-| bour, till such a Man may be | had to perfect the Cure. | Collected out of the best authors | for the generall good.” The following is his prescription for all kinds of poisons:—viz. “the Hoofe of an Oxe cut into parings and boyled with bruised mustard-seed in white wine and faire water. The Bloud of a Malard drunke fresh and warme: or els dryed to powder, and so drunke in a draught of white wine. The Bloud of a Stagge also in the same manner. The seeds of Rue and the leaves of Betony boyled together in white wine. Or take ij scruples (that is fortie graines) of Mithridate; of prepared Chrystall, one dram (that is three score grains), fresh Butter one ounce. Mix all well together. Swallow it down by such quantities as you can swallow at once; and drink presently upon it a quarter of a pint of the decoction of French Barley, or so much of six shillings Beere. Of this I have had happy proofe.”

There is a much more effective, though a somewhat revolting prescription for “those with abilitie.” “Take,” says our seventeenth century physician, “take a sound horse, open his belly alive, take out all his entrayles quickly, and put the poysoned partie naked into it all save his head, while the body of the horse retains his naturall heate, and there let him sweat well.” Our author admits that “this may be held a strange course, but the same reason that teacheth to devide live pullets and pigeons for plague-sores approveth this way of sweating as most apt to draw to itselfe all poysons from the heart and principall parts of the patient’s body. But during this time of sweating he must defend his braine by wearing on his head a quilt.” The quilt is to be made by taking a number of dried herbs, which are to be made into a “grosse powder and quilt them up in sarsnet or calico, and let it be so big as to cover all the head like a cap, then binde it on fast with a kerchief.” This is called “a Nightcap to preserve the Brain.”

There are also curious prescriptions for the stings of bees and wasps, the “bitings of spiders,” of which he says “the garden ones are the worst.” He tells us that the “flesh of the same beast that biteth, inwardly taken, helpeth much,” and that “outwardly the best thing to be applied is the flesh of the same beast that did the hurt, pounded in a morter and applied in manner of a poultis.” Here is one about that pretty little animal, the shrew-mouse: “Now the shrew-mouse is a little kind of a mouse with a long sharpe snout and a short tayle; it liveth commonly in old ruinous walls. It biteth also very venomously, and leaveth foure small perforations made by her foure foreteeth. To cure her biting, her flesh roasted and eaten is the best inward antidote if it may be had. And outwardly apply her warme liver and skin if it may be had. Otherwise Rocket-reeds beaten into powder, and mixed with the bloud of a dog. Or els the teeth of a dead man made into a fine powder.”

The toad comes in for a good share of attention, and Mr. Bradwell gives a personal anecdote on this subject. He says:—“Myself, while I was a student at Cambridge, was so hurt by the spouting of a venomous humour from the body of a great toad into my face while I pashed him to death with a brickbat. Some of the moisture lighted on my right eye, which did not a little endanger it, and hath made it ever since apt to receive any flux of Rheume or Inflammation.” Some of our readers may think that this was a fit punishment for having “pashed” the toad to “death with a brickbat.”

Among the strangest things ever used as medicine must be placed human skulls. In 1854, Mr. T. A. Trollope gave a short account in Notes and Queries of a book by Dr. Cammillo Brunoni, published at Fabriano in 1726. It was entitled Il Medico Poeta (the Physician a Poet), and gives an account “of the medical uses of human skulls.” Dr. Brunoni informs us, says Mr. Trollope, that “all skulls are not of equal value. Indeed, those of persons who have died a natural death, are good for little or nothing. The reason of this is, that the disease of which they died has consumed or dissipated the essential spirit! The skulls of murderers and bandits are particularly efficacious. And this is clearly because not only is the essential spirit of the cranium concentrated therein by the nature of their violent death, but also the force of it is increased by the long exposure to the atmosphere, occasioned by the heads of such persons being ordinarily placed on spikes over the gates of cities! Such skulls are used in various manners. Preparations of volatile salt, spirit, gelatine, essence, etc., are made from them, and are very useful in epilepsy and hœmorrhage. The notion soldiers have, that drinking out of a skull renders them invulnerable in battle, is a mere superstition, though respectable writers do maintain that such a practice is a proved preventive against scrofula.”

This very curious book consists of a “poem in twelve cantos, or ‘Capitoli,’ as from the fifteenth century downwards it was the Italian fashion to call them, on the physical poet—a sort of medical ars poetica; and followed by a hundred and seventy-two sonnets on all diseases, drugs, parts of the body, functions of them, and curative means. Each sonnet is printed on one page, while that opposite is occupied by a compendious account in prose of the subject in hand. We have a sonnet on the stomach-ache, a sonnet on apoplexy, a sonnet on purges, another on blisters, and many others on far less mentionable subjects. The author’s poetical view of the action of a black-dose compares it to that of a tidy and active housemaid, who, having swept together all the dirt in the room, throws it out of the window. Mystic virtues are attributed to a variety of substances, animal, vegetable, and mineral.”

That delightful work, The Memoirs of the Verney Family, by Lady Verney, affords some very striking examples of the medical treatment of poor suffering humanity in the 17th century. Our selections are from the third volume.

One of the most extraordinary medicines of this, or of any age, was without doubt that known as Venice Treacle. In 1651, Sir Ralph Verney was in Venice, and the Memoirs furnish the following graphic account of this terrible drug, which was a concoction of the most disgusting materials. Sir Ralph sends it to Mrs. Isham, for her family medicine chest, and says “hee that is most famous for Treacle is called Sigr Antonio Sgobis, and keepes shopp at the Strazzo, or Ostridge, sopra il ponte de’Baretteri, on the right hand going towards St. Mark’s. His price is 19 livres (Venize money) a pound, and hee gives leaden Potts with the Ostridge signe uppon them, and Papers both in Italian and Lattin to show its virtue.” “This celebrated and incredibly nasty compound,” adds Lady Verney, “traditionally composed by Nero’s physician, was made of vipers, white wine, and opium, ‘spices from both the Indies,’ liquorice, red roses, tops of germander, juice of rough aloes, seeds of treacle mustard, tops of St. John’s wort, and some twenty other herbs, to be mixed with honey ‘triple the weight of all the dry species’ into an electuary.” The recipe is given as late as 1739, in Dr. Quincey’s “English Dispensatory,” published by Thomas Longman, at the Ship in Paternoster Row. “Vipers are essential, and to get the full benefit of them ‘a dozen vipers should be put alive into white wine.’ The English doctor, anxious for the credit of British vipers, proves that Venice treacle may be made as well in England, ‘though their country is hotter, and so may the more rarify the viperime juices’; yet the bites of our vipers at the proper time of year, which is the hottest, are as efficacious and deadly as them. But he complains that the name of Venice goes so far, that English people ‘please themselves much with buying a Tin Pot at a low price of a dirty sailor ... with directions in the Italian tongue, printed in London,’ and that some base druggists ‘make this wretched stuff of little else than the sweepings of their shops.’ Sir Ralph could pride himself that his leaden pots contained the genuine horror. It was used as ‘an opiate when some stimulus is required at the same time’; an overdose was confessedly dangerous, and even its advocates allowed that Venice treacle did not suit everyone, because, forsooth, ‘honey disagrees with some particular constitutions.’” For centuries this medical “horror” was taken by our drastically treated forefathers.

The treatment was indeed drastic, and we might truly add cruel. Tom Verney had “a tertian ague and a feaver,” and for this he had “only a vomit, glister, a cordiall, and breathed a vane”—that is, was bled. Another patient, Sir George Wheler, who had caught a chill after dancing, had all sorts of “Applications of Blisters and Laudanums,” so that his Christmas dinner at Dr. Denton’s cost him “the best part of 100 pounds.” For an eruption in the leg, Sir Ralph Verney was advised to apply a lotion “so virulent, a drop would fech of the skin when it touched.”

Young Edmund Verney was ill in 1657, and writes to his father, “Truly I might compare my afflictions to Job’s. I have taken purges and vomits, pills and potions, I have been blooded, and I doe not know what I have not had, I have had so many things.” In 1657-58 the epidemic known as “The New Disease,” proved very fatal, and created quite a panic. The treatment adopted by the doctors may be gathered from a prescription of Dr. Denton’s, one of the most famous physicians of the time. He writes to Sir Ralph Verney, “I see noe danger of Wm. R., and if he had followed your advice by taking of a vomit, and if that had not done it, then to have beene blooded, I beleeved he had beene well ere this.” Then he adds “It is the best thinge and the surest and the quickest he can yet doe, therefore I pray lett him have one yett. 3 full spoonfulls of the vomitage liquor in possitt drinke will doe well, and he may abide 4 the same night when he goes to rest; let him take the weight of vids of diascordium the next day or the next but one; he may be blooded in the arm about 20 ounces.”

Some of the ladies of the time did not, however, approve of this kind of treatment, and preferred their own remedies, or their own notions of remedies, to the doctor’s prescriptions. We select two examples. Lady Fanshawe described the disease as “a very ill kind of fever, of which many died, and it ran generally through all families.” While she suffered from it she ate “neither flesh, nor fish, nor bread, but sage possett drink, a pancake or eggs, or now and then a turnip or carrott.” But Lady Hobart ventured to prescribe. She writes, “If you have a new dises in your town pray have a car of yourself, and goo to non of them; but drink good ale for the gretis cordall that is: I live by the strength of your malt.” Few, we anticipate, would object to her ladyship’s advice, and most would prefer her “good ale” to Dr. Denton’s “vomitts,” and the loss of 20 ounces of blood.

Our illustrations might be indefinitely multiplied, but those given will amply suffice to show the way in which our fathers were physicked.