In September 1762 Ann James, a fifty-five-year-old woman from Boughton Monchelsea in Kent, came to the attention of Josiah Colebroke, FRS. For some years she had been in chronic pain:
She complained of most excruciating stabbing pains in both breasts, which prevented her having any rest in the night, and made her so very miserable all day, whether she lay down, stood, sat, or walked, that she was unable not only to go out to work, but even to do any thing for her family at home, not even to make her own bed; and she had totally lost her appetite: her usual employ was sewing, washing, brewing, and what we in London call the business of a charwoman. The breasts were but little discoloured, but the pains she described, and the ramifications attending the scirrhus in the left breast, induced me to pronounce jt a cancer.
Mr Colebroke advised her to take hemlock, minced with parsley to disguise the bitter taste; and to eat a third of a leaf of the same plant with bread and butter two or three times a day. In addition,
that her constant drink should be lime-water and milk; that she should take as many millepedes every day as her stomach would bear, or she could get; that her body should be kept open by rhubarb or magnesia, as occasion required; that she should have an issue in her arm, and lose six or eight ounces of blood once in six or eight weeks, if her pains continued.
Since the hemlock seemed to ease her pain, he instructed her to increase the dose. Towards the end of November her swelling and pain increased, and she started to suffer from dizzy spells. Mr Colebroke instructed those looking after her to bleed her, but this was not a success:
she fainted away, and afterwards had fainting fits two or three times in a day, great sickness at her stomach, and sometimes bled at her nose.
After this deterioration in her condition, Mr Colebroke suspended the use of hemlock; when she improved
I then ordered her an infusion of the cortex Peruvianus [Pervuvian bark, the original source of the drug quinine], an ounce in powder to a quart of spring water, to let it stand three or four days, shaking it every day, and then that she should take three spoonfuls twice in a day; that she should repeat the Hemlock in the same quantity she took at the first; that she should not again exceed that quantity on any account; and that she should continue the lime-water and the millepedes.
This seems to have had the desired effect, and Mr Colebroke was not called for again until late March, when a friend of the family visited him in London, and told him
that Ann James was surprizingly recovered; that her cancer was much lessened, that she could use her arms, work for herself and family, and that her pains were so much abated that she was quite happy. In September last I was at Boughton, saw her, and examined her breasts; the scirrhus in her left breast was not half so big as when I saw it before; the ramifications were all gone, and it did not at all adhere to the pectoral muscle; her appetite was good, and she was able to do her business as usual, and had that day I saw her been brewing: she said she sometimes felt some of those stabbing pains she before complained of, but they were not frequent nor very severe.
Hemlock – best known today as a deadly poison – was also frequently used as a drug from the Middle Ages until quite recently: late nineteenth-century journals discussed it as a treatment for disorders including whooping cough, scrofula, coughs, rheumatic fever and ulcers. It is, however, so toxic that there are cases on record of individuals who died after eating meat from animals which had consumed its leaves.
Millipedes are less well known for their pharmacological properties, although a study by Chinese scientists some years ago claimed that the secretions of one species inhibited the division of cancer cells.
[Source: The Medical Museum, 1764]