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.

1864, Sale Catalogue (1D74/5/b/8)

1670s, William Barwell’s Recipe Book (WYL280/626)
For a Pain at your H[e]art
Take Gun-powder a Thimble full bruised for nine mornings in milk, warm. Approved medicine.

18th century, Culinary Recipes and Medical Prescriptions, (WYW1352/3/4/7/3)
               Viper wine in London
Take of dry’d Viper 20 Ounces: of White Wine 2 Pinch. Infuse with a Gentle Heat for a Week & then strain the wine off.
1822-1824, Diary of Lady Amabel of Yorke, Page 54 (WYL150/35)

Very indiscreetly, put some of that terrible Chemical Drug, the Lunar Caustic into his Ear, which brought on insupportable Pain, Fever, & almost Delirium till extracted, & I fear he has not quite recover’d it yet.
If this Professor did too much, Dr Bankhead is she says, universally condemn’d for doing too little, in poor L[or]d Londonderry’s case. See Pages 26 & 41. The extreme bad State of his Blood should have been an Indication for more Bleeding, as when he was cupp’d on the Friday Bankhead himself said it look’d more like Glue than Blood.
L[a]dy Sarah does not think that the Ministers had discover’d any Derangement of Mind in the Cabinet-Councils they had held with him, though his immediate Servants & Dependants had observ’d that his Temper was grown irritable & Suspicious.

1770s, From the pharmacopoeia Baleana, Nostell Collection (WYW1352/1/4/30/9)
A water for the Hair
Take Bees 4 Ounces
Honey one pound
Milk 2 pounds mix and distil, secundum artem
Best is that it wonderfully helps in an Alopecia or falling of the Hair; it is very good against Deafness, being dropt into the Ears
If you infuse infuse powder of Pomegranate-peels in it after distillation, it will be more powerful to hinder a falling of Hair
Also if you infuse therein Black pepper one ounce for one pound of this water it will be of more than triple strength in pausing the Hair to grow upon bald places.