All hail the strawberry

A number of fruits and vegetables which are part of our regular diet were more prized in past centuries for their medicinal qualities. The strawberry is one of the gastronomic highlights of the British summer, but until the early 19th century the fruit was just as much cherished for its varied therapeutic uses. One Anglo-Saxon medical text contains this … Read more

Bleeding you well

bleeding of the eyesMore from Lorenz Heister’s surgical textbook Chirurgie, published in 1718, on which I have written before. The practice of bloodletting, also known as phlebotomy, was a staple treatment for millennia and still had influential advocates at the end of the nineteenth century.  Most people will be aware that doctors used to bleed their patients, but fewer will be … Read more

In praise of temperance

intoxicationIt seems appropriate on a Friday to share this warning about the dangers of binge drinking, from William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine.  Published in 1808, and aimed at the patient rather than the doctor, this book offers advice on treating the commonest ailments, as well as such matters as clothing, diet and personal hygiene.

Dr Buchan was evidently no fan … Read more

The eye-brush


Scarification is a medical practice which was popular until the early nineteenth century and which thankfully has now been consigned to the history books (and blogs).  In concept similar to – but less dramatic than – bleeding, it entailed using a rough implement or blade to make abrasions on the surface of the body. In theory it allowed the evacuation … Read more

Medicine or marinade?

External stimulantsEarly nineteenth-century doctors had some funny ideas about treating infectious disease.  Before the discovery of microbes, next to nothing was known about what caused infections, or how to cure them.   For many years, physicians believed that stimulating the outer surfaces of the body would have an effect.  Several methods of doing so were employed: cupping, in which partially-evacuated glasses were … Read more

Saliva and crow’s vomit

Discourse on the mode of acting on the human bodyThe University of Pavia in northern Italy is one of the oldest in the world, founded in 1361.  It has a distinguished history of experimental scientific research: Alessandro Volta, the pioneer of electrochemistry, was professor there for forty years beginning in 1779.

While Volta was working on his voltaic pile – the first electric battery – his colleagues in the … Read more

Lettuce, a Class A drug

Lettuce drugsA post last week referred to Andrew Duncan, founder of the Medical and Philosophical Commentaries, the first regular medical journal published in the United Kingdom.  In 1810 he wrote a paper for a publication slightly less well known for its original medical research, the Memoirs of the Caledonian Horticultural Society.  His subject?  Lettuce. 

Opium, or the inspissated [congealed] … Read more

Lively and clean on the palate

Report on cheap wineIn 1865 the Medical Times and Gazette published a series of articles entitled ‘Report on cheap wine’.  There was some concern that the increasing availability of inexpensive wines and spirits was not simply due to increased supply, but that unscrupulous producers were cutting corners or selling counterfeit goods, with serious implications for public health.  A ‘Special Empirical Commissioner’ – today … Read more

Sand, to be taken twice daily

The use of sandThe Annals of Medicine for 1799 contains a letter from a Dr Guthrie, an Scottish physician then working in St Petersburg.  At the invitation of the journal’s editor, he related a series of interesting cases he had encountered in his practice there.  One of them came from a former housemaid, who had visited his study to tell of a simple … Read more