Preserve the past, serve the present, protect the future
Medicine Through Time: Don’t try this at home
There are many remedies in historical medicine which make us shudder and squirm. From poisons to including ingredients like warm sheep innards or poo, don’t try this at home! Poisonous metals like mercury were commonly used and can have dangerous effects. Direct skin contact with mercury not only burns the skin but high exposure can lead to death. Smaller amounts can cause tremors, memory loss and organ damage to the kidneys and thyroid. Many believed that it was only dangerous when swallowed, resulting in ointments being based on it – a big mistake!
A lot of other dangerous ingredients were commonly used like silver nitrate. It used to be called lunar caustic due to its silvery colour being associated with the moon. Today, it’s used in very dilute concentrations to treat nosebleeds because it’s highly toxic and burns the skin. Lunar caustic was used to cauterise wounds and to remove tissues but had some serious side effects that meant it wasn’t worth the risk!
One of the most interesting aspects of medicine is often its distribution through ideas and through objects. As an archive, we don’t often hold objects, but we do have a sale catalogue which lists the various and bizarre items sold at auction in 1864, including a dissecting case, some saws, an enema syringe, a set of amputating instruments (in its case for all of your travel needs), a stomach pump and ‘a large quantity of drugs’. If you’re keen to buy any needles, saws or other spine-shivering instruments, you’ve come to the right sale. Anyone could come and buy these, you didn’t have to have a medical license to get your hands on some trepanning saws.