For as much as many doctors in the Georgian Era and Long 19th Century still clung to bloodletting, leeches, and purgatives, medical advances were steadily coming along. Although way too many medical professionals still wanted to examine the feces of the sick.
But I’ll leave that for the medical journals of the time to discuss.
Metallic-Tractors by James Gillray, 1801, Public Domain.
Along the lines of the more things change, the more things stay the same, I was surprised to learn there was a slang term for ‘ye olde doctor’s note.’ Apparently, students have always been trying to get out of class, and always will. The first – and last – time I tried it was the third grade, and it earned me a trip to the doctor’s office for a throat culture to check for strep throat. Never again.
(CAMBRIDGE). A certificate from the apothecary that you are INDISPOSED, (i. e.) to go to chapel. He sports an Aegrotat: he is sick, and unable to attend Chapel.
Geri Walter, in her post Health Remedies, Preventatives, and Cures in the 1700 and 1800s, makes a handy list of restoratives. Her list; my summarizing commentary.
Baths were considered profitable for myriad ailments, from hygiene and hysteria, to inflammations and sprains/fractures – problems that warm baths are still prescribed for today (well, except for the female hysteria). However, some historians have theorized that cross contamination between public bath springs and open sewage may have led to its own health concerns.
Bloodletting and Leeches
When your body was full of foul and noxious humors, sometimes you just needed 20 leeches applied. At the same time.
Not for eating, but for making a poultice or plaister, for application to areas afflicted with boils or other injuries. Thank the Egyptians for this one.
Calomel and Opium
Interestingly, delving into several 19th century books, one finds very little evidence that opium ever did much of anything for any patient beyond addicting them. It started off as a topical curative, and was so useless that doctors moved on to (1) having patients ingest it, and (2) combining it with mercury. Both terrific ideas.
Palatable Physic, Pub 5th of April by W. Heath, 5 April 1810, Public Domain.
In the late 18th century, James Currie proposed a cold water treatment for fever while a student at the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh, because of the link he discovered between evaporation and cooling. He based his proposal on observations made after a shipwreck and those exposed to salt water, the effects of evaporation, and what happened to the men when they were given warm blankets. Although not initially applying this discovery to illnesses, his subsequent research on other volunteers, and himself, led him to focus on its application to fevers. Needless to say, the “establishment” that favored patients lying in the dark, in bed, in cloistered rooms with firmly shut windows, under copious blankets, were less than thrilled or interested in his findings.
Epsom during the Regency era was as popular for horses as for healing. Since it’s discovery in 1618, the salts (here meaning the generic term salt, defined as any crystalized chemical compound; in this case, magnesium sulfate) had been used for everything from soaks for tired muscles, poultices for wound healing, and a solution to fight dandruff and combat acne. When dissolved in water, it even aided digestion. Epsom salts also became a key ingredient in the newly popular tonics (read quack medicine) of the time.
Flower of Sulphur
This one baffles me, because if you’ve ever smelled sulphur, you know that it has a distinctive odor. Back in the day, it was said to protect against toothache and prevent bad breath. To be sure, it has anti-fungal and antiseptic properties, and could have been efficacious in these pursuits, but how bad was a person’s breath that they wanted to replace it with the smell of rotten eggs?
One recommendation at the time was to treat burns by applying flour thickly over the injury, and any inflammation that spread. Of course, we know now that the heat needs to be drawn out first, else the flour simply aids in the burn continuing to cook the injured area. Otherwise, flour isn’t too terrible an idea, as a protectant.
Ginger is my go-to for an upset stomach. Regency apothecaries used it as a syrup or tincture, for gout, colic, or indigestion.
I imagine if you could get straight horseradish down your gullet, it could go a long way to curing what ailed you. It was claimed to be effective for rheumatism and dropsy.
A Pinch of Cephalic by George Cruikshank after James Gillray, 25 January 1822, National Portrait Gallery.
Limit Star Gazing
Did they really want to prevent eye strain, or rather keep people indoors, properly supervised, and away from the bewitching moonlight that tended to result in disorders of the nine-month kind?
History had its own little blue pills called “blue mass.” Mercury was dispensed in this manner: one pill twice daily, for apoplexy (stroke), constipation, depression, melancholy, toothache, and syphilis. Today we would call this throwing something at the wall to see what sticks. We would also call it mercury poisoning.
In the 19th century, hygiene was still considered equal parts unnecessary and unhealthy. As people were slowly coming around to the idea of better health through cleanliness, people still balked at brushing their teeth more than once a day. One dentist said if you must choose, brush at night, the reason being that people tended to sleep in heated, unwholesome atmospheres just swirling with bodily humors. Whatever we accumulated in our mouths from the day’s adventures, really needed to be removed before going to sleep in the suffocating cesspits of our bedrooms for eight hours. Add a little myrrh for good measure for its antiseptic properties.
I love this recipe for chapped hands: 4 ounces of lard, 6 ounces honey, 8 ounces oatmeal, 3 egg yolks, and 1 ounce powdered gum arable. Mix well into a paste, then leave on the skin until “exceedingly soft and supple.” Then good luck keeping your pets and farm animals from eating you alive.
As we learned last week, a poultice is a soft, warm, moist mass of bread, meal, or herbs applied to an affected part of the body to relieve an injury. The magic ingredient here is powdered mustard, made for a sore throat.
Mixing a Recipe for Corns by George Cruikshank, 1819, Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library.
Reading Aloud with the Teeth Closed
To cure stutters and stammers, “for two hours a day, for three or four months.” Mercy.
To cure a lisp, recite the following rapidly and repeatedly:
Hobbs meets Snobbs and Kobbs;
Hobbs bobs to Snobbs and Nobbs;
Hobbs nobs with Snobbs and robs Nobbs’ fobs.
“This is,” says Nobbs, “the worst of Hobbs’ jobs,” and Snobbs sobs.
This miracle medicinal was used to treat inflammation, scurvy, cancer, and diarrhea. Essiac tea today is brewed with sheep sorrel and touted as a homeopathic treatment for cancer.
Stimulating Drinks and Whipping
Quite possibly the most horrifying hilarious prescription in the list. When “poisoning (there’s truth you don’t see in today’s medical journals) by laudanum (opium), morphine, paregoric, and sleeping mixtures in genera,” patients often needed stimulating drinks to be “kept warm, breathing (more truth),” and “awake by whipping if necessary.” Dear Lord. Medicine may still be a practice, but God bless the 21st century.
No longer just for witches, toads were now in vogue to treat everything from dropsy to bed wetting, scrofula, cancer, colic, inflammation, headaches, nose bleeds, smallpox, and quinsy. The poor toad could have various parts cut off, be cooked or boiled and eaten, or dried and ground into powder for internal and external use. Still sounds like witchcraft to me.
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- Read Geri Walton’s entire article Health Remedies, Preventatives, and Cures in the 1700 and 1800s. I omitted from my post the items unavailable during the Regency era.
- Learn all about James Currie’s fever research in The origins and fate of James Currie’s cold water treatment for fever.
- For more on The Salts of Epsom, head over to The Regency Redingote. FYI: it’s really good for tomato plants.
- Lincoln took little “Blue Mass” pills, too. I had no idea, but learned about it at The Risky Medical Treatment That Lincoln Trusted.
- Some of these “medicines” were mad, bad, and dangerous to use! Check out The Georgian and Regency Home Medicine Chest for a list of okay, scary, and downright deadly at Pen and Pension.
- I have a fondness for medical quack stories. Check out the story on Morison’s Vegetable Pills inside English Caricature: Quacks & Nostrums.
- Interested in more quackery? How can you not when they promise cures for ‘Glimmering of the Gizzard,’ ‘Quavering of the Kidneys’ and the ‘Wambling Trot?’ It’s addictive. Head over to Quack Medicine in Georgian England and Quacks and hacks: Georgian medicine and the power of advertising.