The 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 remedy which had cured her husband, a cabinet-maker:
Every time her husband attempted to work at his bench for several months past, he has been seized with a violent palpitation of the heart, which soon brings on a swelling, or inflation of the stomach and lower belly; attended with sickness at stomach, so as to incapacitate him for following his trade. More especially, as a swelling of his legs prevented him from going out to receive his customers’ orders; whilst he was deprived of rest in a horizontal position, from a sense of suffocation, every time he attempted to lie down in his bed.
A combination of symptoms strongly suggestive of left ventricular heart failure.
For these complaints he consulted several practitioners, and took their prescriptions without success; till, at last, a neighbour advised him to swallow, every day, a table-spoonful of common sand; which, she tells me, she washes, dries, and duly administers.
It purges him pretty briskly, and the swelling of his legs is gone, with the inflation of the stomach and abdomen; so that he can now sleep, eat, and walk. Which last fact I can bear testimony of, as I found he was waiting in my garden; and on being called up, confirmed, in his own language, all his wife had more rapidly told me in French. This medical anecdote I thought worth relating, from its singularity. Not that I suppose you will be driven to the use of silex…
The Latin for ‘sand’ – 18th-century physicians could not resist using a classical language if a simple English word was available.
…in the very seat of medicine; but, as your Medical Annals must certainly find their way where much less assistance is at hand, possibly the use of sand may not be confined to the gizzarded animals, should others, like our German joiner, find a purge and deobstruent on the floors of their humble habitations.
What could be more convenient?