For hundreds of years, from at least the Renaissance through the Victorian era, medicine in England, Italy, France, and other European countries routinely involved the use of the dead human body. Bones, brains, blood, and more were believed to be able to cure everything from gout to epilepsy, thanks to the life-giving spirit imparted by the deceased. Although today the use of corpses is still an integral part of our healthcare—from tissue transplants to blood transfusions—the bulk of the practice of "medical cannibalism" has, thankfully, died out.
1. ANY PART OF A MUMMY
Arguably the most popular and the most difficult to find of the bunch, mummy was considered practically a panacea during the golden age of corpse medicine in the 16th and 17th centuries. Brought back from plundered Egyptian tombs, it was added to tinctures or plasters used to combat bleeding, venomous bites, bruising, and joint pain. Unfortunately, demand far outweighed the ill-gotten supply, and clever entrepreneurs cashed in on the craze by preparing fake mummies from the bodies of lepers, beggars, and even camels.
If powdered corpse was powerful, powdered corpse with chocolate was doubly so—at least according to Thomas Willis, a 17th-century scientist who combined skulls and cocoa in a cure for bleeding. Human skulls were also soaked in alcohol, creating a tincture called “the King’s drops,” since King Charles II of England allegedly paid £6000 for a personal recipe. The tincture was said to be good for gout, dropsy (edema), and "all fevers putrid or pestilential," among other ailments.
Nosebleeds and epilepsy were also treated with a powder made from moss growing on human skulls. Richard Sugg, the author of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, says that this cure actually did work—but only because powder stimulated coagulation.
Brains were also used to cure epilepsy. Physician John French describes the process for making a tincture of brains in his 1651 book The Art of Distillation: “[T]ake the brains of a young man that hath died a violent death,” mash in a stone mortar, steep in wine, and “digest it half a year in horse dung” before distilling.
This remedy was supposed to work under the "like cures like" theory of medicine popular at the time, in which skulls and brains were seen as especially useful for curing illnesses thought to stem from the head. Cures taken from corpses that had died horribly were often thought to be extra powerful, because violence was seen to somehow concentrate the life force.
Human fat was a sought-after remedy for bleeding, bruising, muscle cramps, nerve damage, joint pain, and a variety of other afflictions. It was especially popular in Germany, and was delivered to Munich’s doctors by enterprising executioners until the mid-18th century. Others sought to bypass the apothecary entirely and went straight to the executioner for their medicinal supplies. Often the fat was made into a salve (sometimes known as "hangman's salve"), but one physician to several English and French kings combined the ingredient with hemlock and opium and administered it as a pain-reducing plaster.
Like fat and brains, blood was also often procured directly from the executioner. People who were too poor to afford the fine wares of their local apothecary went instead to the gallows, where they paid a few coins to drink the fresh blood of the recently executed. Though usually drunk straight, blood was also dried and powdered (to cure nosebleeds), sprinkled on wounds (to stop bleeding), or even made into a kind of human marmalade.
According to Sugg, a tonic called “liquor of hair” was regularly used to encourage hair growth in those who were balding. Under the like cures like theory, the hair of a deceased person was believed to help with the hair of the living. However, powdered hair was also administered for complaints that had nothing to do with heads—including jaundice.
Teeth, too, were an example of "like cures like." In North Hampshire, England, and other areas, people wore teeth taken from corpses in a bag around their neck as a remedy for toothache, an ailment that could also be treated by touching a cadaver’s tooth to your own. In Ireland, people went even further, and believed that toothache could be cured by rubbing the afflicted gum with the finger of a corpse, or even washing it with some water that had also been used to wash the dead body. (Makes you thankful for modern mouthwash.)