Mummies and rhubarb

I recently wrote about the horrifying animal remedies which one could buy in a London apothecary’s shop in the seventeenth century.  These were far from being the most disgusting products on sale in these emporia.  Apothecaries also traded in various human substances.  There’s a useful catalogue in Robert James’s 1747 edition of the London Pharmacopoeia: Homo, Man, … Continue reading Mummies and rhubarb

Leeches: for external and internal use

If there’s one thing that everybody knows about early medicine, it’s the fact that doctors loved to use leeches.  Attaching a leech, or even dozens of them, to remove a small amount of blood from a diseased part of the body was a favourite remedy for the best part of 2000 years – and was … Continue reading Leeches: for external and internal use

Brain of hare and turd of dog

Digging around in an 1851 edition of The Monthly Journal of Medical Science, I stumbled across a long and rather dry article about Roman medicine by a Dr Simpson, professor of midwifery at the University of Edinburgh.  His narrative is enlivened by a list of bizarre remedies favoured by Roman doctors.  He then points out … Continue reading Brain of hare and turd of dog

Wrapped in a dead sheep

One of the difficulties of surgery, even today, is keeping the patient’s body temperature at a safe level.  Core temperatures can drop quite dramatically when a large incision has been made, and although it is theoretically possible to keep the patient warm by making the operating theatre hotter, in practice this makes conditions intolerable for the … Continue reading Wrapped in a dead sheep

A fright for sore eyes

Bright sunlight has long been known to be bad for the eyes.  Prolonged exposure to UV radiation can cause a range of problems, including cataracts and cancers.  In 1802 a Dr Whyte, a physician with long experience of practice in Egypt and other hot climates, wrote an article for The Medical and Physical Journal about the … Continue reading A fright for sore eyes

Medicated cigarettes: the new panacea

Nineteenth-century opinion on the subject of smoking was sharply divided.  On the one hand there were many prominent doctors who condemned the practice as unhealthy, and even suggested that it caused cancers of the mouth; on the other, there were plenty of physicians who believed that smoking eased coughs and other respiratory disorders by promoting the … Continue reading Medicated cigarettes: the new panacea

The port-wine enema

Alcoholic drinks were an important part of the physician’s armoury until surprisingly recently.  In the early years of the twentieth century, brandy (or whiskey, in the US) was still being administered to patients as a stimulant after they had undergone major surgery.  Every tipple you can think of – from weak ale to strong spirits … Continue reading The port-wine enema

Wine, the great healer

Tetanus is a bacterial infection usually contracted through a skin wound – in the days before a vaccine was widely available, cases were fairly common and could follow something as trivial as pricking a finger on a thorn. Before the twentieth century physicians had few therapeutic options.  But in 1798 a doctor from New York found … Continue reading Wine, the great healer

The petrol cocktail: a cure for cholera

On September 22nd 1846, Dr James Tunstall of Bath wrote to Sir Charles Napier, the Governor of Scinde (then part of the Raj; now Sindh Province in Pakistan).  The province had been suffering from an epidemic of cholera, and Dr Tunstall believed he could help: Sir -The alarming fatality that has attended the progress of … Continue reading The petrol cocktail: a cure for cholera

Smoking’s good for you – as long as you’re a priest

The editor of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal surely had no idea of the furore that he was provoking in March 1839 when he published an inoffensive little article about parish priests:  Within less than twenty years a new disease has been developed in this country, which is almost exclusively confined to parish ministers. … Continue reading Smoking’s good for you – as long as you’re a priest