25 Terrifying 18th Century Remedies for What Ails You
Could you imagine cutting, burning, and bleeding someone who is having a stroke? Or rubbing poisonous lead on someone to cure their rectal cancer? Welcome to just a couple of the remedies in The Book of Phisick, a remarkably legible, handwritten recipe book of natural remedies. It was initially written by an unknown author in 1710 and subsequently added to by different anonymous hands for years. The recipes, for the most part, involve using plants and minerals to battle everything from bad breath to cancer. Some of the treatments can still be found in non-Western approaches to medicine; others appear to be a sure way to hasten the death of the patient. All of them will make you a little more tolerant of your insurance co-pays.
1. "For the Biteing of a Mad Dog"
Rabies is almost always fatal unless the infected person is given the modern two-week treatment regimen of shots to help their body identify and fight the virus. The treatment prescribed in Phisick is hopelessly insufficient—and cruel, considering the hydrophobia that usually accompanies rabies:
"Take 40 grains of ground liverwort and 20 grains of pepper in half a pint of milk … take this quantity four mornings together, then use of Cold Bath, every other day, a month."
Phisick also provides a contingency treatment “if the madness is begun.” Sip a tea made of cinnabar, musk, and syrup of cloves with a booze chaser, and “stay thirty days, before you repeat it.” If the symptoms associated with madness have already begun, 30 days of doing nothing would see the end of many patients—but unfortunately, so would 30 days of any other treatment in this era.
2. "To Kill Black Worms in the Face"
For a long time, people thought blackheads were tiny worms burrowed into the skin, and you can see how easily the assumption could be made by watching some of the many blackhead extraction videos on YouTube. (Do not watch while eating.) The successful removal of blackheads yielded what was considered to be the tiny corpse of the offending vermin. The recipe was simple: red wine vinegar, prunella, and nightshade water. Prunella is very common in herbal medicine all over the globe even today, prescribed as a general “heal-all.” The nightshade water was probably what was left over from boiling the berries and leaves of the solanum nigrum plant. That would have made it Black Nightshade, which—though still toxic in high enough quantities—is nowhere near as poisonous as its cousin Deadly Nightshade. Probably just poisonous enough to flush out all the tiny worms nesting in your face.
3. "White Lead Plaister"
White lead was used as a miraculous panacea for centuries. Smearing it over a person’s back was said to prevent miscarriage and cure “the bloody flux” (a.k.a. unstoppable, often fatal diarrhea). Practitioners believed that, when applied to the stomach, it could provoke appetite and soothed The King’s Evil—painless but unsightly infected lymph nodes, so called because it was believed that the touch of a sovereign ordained by God could cure it. It was also believed to be good for swellings, bruises, drawing out infection, and any problems you might be having with your “fundament” (bottom). Once made, the concoction would be good for 20 years.
White lead, or lead acetate, is an astringent, and can tighten and reduce swelling blood vessels and pores. The fatally high toxicity of white lead was either unknown or simply not a major concern for the people of the 18th century. After all, the effects of lead poisoning—general ill health, decreased life span, dangers to fetal development, and even childhood mortality—were an expected part of life in the era. It would have been difficult to pinpoint white lead as a unique source of any of those ailments.
4. "A Pleasent Purge"
It makes sense, if you think about it: To get well, citizens of the 18th century believed, you had to flush whatever was making you sick out of your body. Therefore, purgatives (any substance that would make a patient expel whatever was in his digestive system, usually through diarrhea) were a huge part of pre-19th century medicine—even if your sickness had nothing to do with your digestive system.
The Book of Phisick contains recipes for multiple laxatives. The “Pleasent” one is a mixture of “manna” (dried sap of the South European Ash tree) and lemon juice. But if you wanted something strong enough to kill intestinal worms—which were very common until chemical pesticides were widely used—and strengthen a weak stomach, you’d use aloe instead of ash. The gelatinous part of the plant could be rolled into pills and fed to the patient. (Though we mostly think of aloe in relation to skin, studies show it may be helpful in inflammatory bowel disease.)
Though they were seen as a cure-all in the 18th century, purgatives actually had the opposite effect: They emptied a patient of desperately needed water, leaving him weak and depleted, but with the same strep throat he had before being put on a strict regimen of continuous stomach cramps and pooping.
5. "An Oyntment For a Cancer in the Breast"
Breast cancer has appeared throughout recorded history since ancient Egypt, although it wasn’t usually attended to until the tumor became painful or noticeable through the skin. Phisick's hopeful remedy contains ingredients like sage, bay leaves, chamomile, and red roses, all left to mature in a dunghill for precisely eight days.
Toward the end of the 18th century, new doctors were challenging the ideas that breast cancer was caused by not enough sex, too much sex, childlessness, too much black bile, or depression. The idea of radical mastectomy as treatment was in its infancy (if you have a strong stomach read Fanny Burney’s account of her own pre-anesthetic mastectomy here). But for the most part, people still treated breast cancer with topical salves. Even if there was no reason to believe it would work, it’s human nature to keep trying.
6. "To Stop Bleeding"
One of the main problems with this recipe is that it doesn’t specify what kind of bleeding it seeks to stop. The other is that its active ingredient is the very harmful white lead, which works as a styptic for wounds. Nineteenth century doctors would use it during surgeries, immediately covering amputated limbs with copious amounts, but the directions given in Phisick don’t say anything about applying to a wound:
"Make bolster of linnen, dip one in the [lead] water and apply to the pit of the stomack. If that does not doe one to each wrist & two to the soales of feet."
Based on books published later, we can infer that this is a recipe for treating hemorrhaging. In Materia medica, written 170 years after Phisick, sugar of lead (another name for white lead) is still recommended for all kinds of internal hemorrhaging, including bronchial, intestinal, renal, and uterine. By first applying the lead poultice to the belly, it would appear to be an attempt to control one or all of the three latter. And even though sugar of lead was easily absorbed into the skin, the potential conditions causing these hemorrhages—typhoid fever, kidney failure, miscarriage—likely needed more than a styptic.
7. "A Good Surfeit Water and proper for the Gripes"
Surfeit water was the Alka-Seltzer of 1710—a way to settle a tummy that had enjoyed a surfeit of indulgence; the water in question was usually alcohol. The recipe also indicates that it can be used to make gripe water, which soothed a fussy baby. Gripe water is still used today, but not this formulation, which seems more appropriate for a fussy Velociraptor: The recipe required a gallon of brandy and as many mature poppy leaves—which would have been heavy with opium—as could be stuffed into a container. The concoction was left to steep for a few days, strained, and then mixed with some nice liquors to make it more palatable; “3 or 4 spoonfuls at a time is enough” for an adult. And for children, just two, with a little water. It was probably incredibly effective—unconscious people are seldom bothered by stomach upset.
8. "For the Colick"
Phisick included many recipes for soothing a child’s upset stomach, not all of which were opiate-based. But you might opt for the poppy seed remedy before using this recipe, which, to start, involved frying the dung of pigeons and then applying the resulting paste to the child’s navel. And that’s the least distasteful part of the treatment: The child is also to be given an enema of hot milk, “or fryed oates, or chamomile, or a bag of sand, or a hot Tyle.” (Elsewhere in Phisick it is indicated that a bag of hot sand or a hot tile are to be applied to an upset stomach externally—though how many poor kids had to endure sand in the bum due to poor sentence structure we’ll never know.)
The last part of the treatment is one we’re vaguely familiar with, preserved in a crude colloquialism usually used to question someone’s truthfulness: Special enema devices—called “glisters” in Phisick but also written as “Clysters”—were used to force tobacco smoke into the bowels. Tobacco smoke was thought to be a catch-all stimulant, and was used rectally for everything from resuscitating drowning victims to halting epileptic seizures.
9. "For an Apoplexy"
Someone who has undergone an apoplexy was identified by “all the senses taken away on a sudden.” We seldom use that term now because we know the condition of “all senses taken away on a sudden” is caused by many different, extremely serious maladies, such as stroke, internal hemorrhage, or brain aneurysm. Treatment for such illnesses in the 18th century was nothing short of torture: First, bleed the patient, letting 16 or 18 ounces of blood (about two cups), which was believed to cleanse the body of bad blood, stimulate the circulatory system, and balance the humors. It was usually done with a fleam, a metal strip with a sharp triangular head specifically designed to puncture veins. The blood would then drip into a bowl made especially for the purpose.
Next, the patient would be cupped and scarified. This involved heating special cups—usually made of metal, glass, or ceramic—over fire to near red-hot. Then, the cups were applied to the skin, burning it and simultaneously creating a vacuum, raising a tremendous welt. If the skin was pierced with a scarificator beforehand, the result would be a “wet cupping,” because the cup would fill with blood. The recipe also prescribed blistering the neck and arms, which was the same process but without the scarificator.
Unfortunately, this poor apoplectic creature’s treatment isn’t over yet. Next comes “strong glisters” (enemas) and the holding of a red hot fire shovel near their head. This is followed by the administration of a negligible poultice of spice to the soles of the feel, and submerging the patient’s hands in near boiling water.
10. "Falling Sickness"
Phisick says this malady “is known by falling down sudainly, strugling, and a white froth coming out of their mouths.” Today, we call it epilepsy. The prescribed treatment is the closest Phisick comes to out and out hocus pocus: The hair of a strong young man, as well as “the bone that grows in the legg of a deer,” must be cooked and powdered, then fed to the patient in the amount “as much as will lye on a groat two days before the new moon.” A full moon was considered to be one of the worst times for a person who suffered epilepsy, as it was believed it triggered madness (thus the “luna” in lunatic).
11. "For Convulsion Fits in Children"
While most of these medicinal recipes have some semblance of logic, there are a few that leave the reader hopelessly confused. To cure fits in children, for example, it is recommended to take a “live pigions rump” and clap it to the rear-end of the unfortunate child. The bird will struggle and “It will draw away the fits and grow weak and dye, so apply another till the fits leave it.” This treatment—the application of a pigeon’s “fundament” to the affected area—is also prescribed to drain venom from a snake bite.
12. "For a Speck in the Eyes"
If you’re thinking the answer lies in a good dousing from a bucket of well water, you’re under-thinking this situation. Those hoping to get rid of eye specks were to “Take urine and put it in a pewter dish,” then place another pewter dish on top of it to collect the condensation rising as the bottom dish is heated. Then, the special pee water is collected and dropped into the eye.
The application of this special water promised to “lessen the speck, clear the eyes, and is an excellent remedy for any sore eyes.” Interestingly, the use of urine as eyewash is still practiced today, although largely frowned on by the medical community.
13. "To Take of Superfluous Hair"
For an era that had few qualms about partaking in some of the most dangerous poisons and disgusting concoctions available in nature, Phisick’s hair-removal secret was quite tame: Simply mix saltwater with “fasting spittle,” spit taken from the mouth early in the morning before eating. It was thought to have special curative properties, and was even mentioned in the Bible. Sadly, it’s not well known for its ability to break down keratin.
14. "For the Head Ache"
Phisick offers an array of simple headache cures. Some are almost shockingly reasonable (drink strong coffee or tea), some are expectedly odd (comb head upwards and stroke with nutmeg and vinegar), and some are just right back in the “oh 18th century, no” category (make vomit, draw blood from temple, blister neck). The headache is one of those maladies which we have learned to manage but have not eradicated. Many a migraine sufferer would gladly tie orange rind to their forehead and snort perfumed water (also advised treatments) if they thought for even a second it would work.
15. "For the Little White Worms in the Fundament"
Even in the 21st century, pinworms are still the most common worm infection in America, particularly among children. These parasites live in the rectum and lower intestines, and the females crawl out to lay their eggs during the night in the anal area. When kids scratch their itchy bums and touch things, they spread the eggs around to nearby hosts (usually other children). Today, there are a number of quick medications that can expel the worms, and natural remedies such as garlic also abound. But Phisick suggests creating a meat suppository, tied to a string, for brisk removal. The idea is that, if left to their own devices for a while, the worms will happily make their homes in the fake “host.” The suppository is then quickly removed, hopefully taking the unwanted interlopers with it. Process is to be repeated until all of the worms are gone.
16. "Bleeding to Stop & Spitting Blood"
Ominous as the title sounds, the litany of options mostly involves stuffing roses into your mouth overnight and avoiding malt beverages. If you're a man, take 20 grains of Aloes Succotrina and "drink nothing but juice of periwinkle." If you're not a man, presumably all the other remedies are golden, including waking up at 4 a.m. to take a spoonful of ground ivy juice or the 18th-century easy button: a grain of laudanum every night.
If you're just spitting up the blood, Phisick gets more specific, suggesting "as much Bolearmoniack as will lye on a shilling twice a day." Obviously, you'll need a shilling for this one to work properly, although it's unclear whether the silver somehow interacts with the bole or if it's purely for measuring purposes. Bole armoniac (also known as Armenian Bole) is a red pottery clay that has been used as an astringent to aid with bleeding and diarrhea since at least the 1st century.
17. "Bruises & Falls"
If you're not interested in the universal remedy of letting 8-10 ounces of blood after a softball hits you in the arm, you can make a tonic with "2 balls of stone horse dung" infused in a pint of ale and strained. Maybe that sounds a little gross to you (ale?!), but don't worry; you can use white wine instead. Unfortunately, if your bruising is internal, Phisick's remedy involves a lot more work. You'll need to kill a sheep and lay in its skin "while it is still hot" to stay in a "continual sweat."
One of the side effects of sweating is increased blood flow, which may not be the best thing for an internal bruise. Depending on the location of the internal bruise, modern doctors would most likely suggest avoiding strenuous activity, using ice and compression, and elevating the injury above the heart to avoid heavy circulation. Plus, the sheep in your life will thank you.
18. "Breath short or Asthma"
Swinging from shortness of breath to asthma is a pretty wide range in intensity, but the 18th-century remedies are still the same. They're also all mostly pleasant: holding black licorice in your mouth, drinking a warm fig drink, mixing lemon juice together with water and sugar. All of these are still used as herbal methods for relieving asthma symptoms as dry figs are believed to reduce bronchial mucus, lemons have an anti-inflammatory property, and, according to a 2011 study, asthmatic mice responded positively to the Glycyrrhizin derived from licorice root.
If you’re an asthmatic child, you have the benefit of the most adorable remedy in the book. Phisick suggests placing a live puppy on your stomach, binding it to your body with cloth as needed. The author notes, "I never knew any medicine give such speedy relief." No kidding. This could be the cure for tons of maladies.
19. "A cock ale for a Consumption"
The tuberculosis vaccine is common now, and the bacterial infection is thankfully rare, but it terrified people living in the 18th century. The "Great White Plague" was a leading cause of death in the United States and elsewhere for decades, and it was such a powerful force that it made its way into some of the most famous literature of the age, from Anna Karenina to Les Mis.
Phisick points out how difficult it is to recognize consumption at first, since it presents as a standard cough, but the text notes that "all coughs after a fortnight is dangerous," especially those without "spitting." It even notes that, past the point of green phlegm and night sweats, consumption is "difficult to cure." As for the cock ale, it's exactly what it sounds like.
"Take 3 gallons of ale & hunt an old cock very well & break all its bones" to form the base of the remedy. It also calls for sarsaparilla, mastic wood, hartshorn (often used in smelling salts), mouse-ear (a kind of chickweed), and several other ingredients all boiled down, strained, and bottled. "Drink no other drink" the text warns.
20. "For corruption of the bladder"
This is another woefully non-specific entry that's open to a lot of interpretation, but at least the cure for whichever bladder corruption ails you is straightforward. "Make licorish tea & drink it, or barly water, in great quantities."
Modern Ayurveda practitioners won't be surprised to see barley water show up here. The long-used natural remedy is held in high esteem as a detoxifier and a diuretic that aids in digestion and bowel regularity due to its high fiber content.
21. "For a Diabetes"
Diabetes is a disease marked by high blood sugar because the body either doesn't make insulin or doesn't make/utilize enough of it to break down glucose to convert it into energy. It wasn't until the discovery of insulin in 1921 that people suffering from diabetes had a fighting chance at survival, so our diabetic friends in the 18th century would not have lived very long. Phisick recommends a handful of beverages made from the usual suspects: sarsaparilla, rose hips, cinnamon, and Jesuit's bark. It also suggests taking "a quart of Bristol Waters every morning & at 4 in the afternoon, Lye upon a sheet of leather."
It's unclear if the author specifically meant water from the natural springs near Bristol, but drinking half a gallon a day would have helped alleviate some of the symptoms because sufferers would have eliminated some glucose through their urine (and water doesn't raise blood sugar either). However, there was also another drink at the time called Bristol Milk which was a fortified red wine. Modern scientists have made a link between drinking red wine and improved heart health for diabetics, but they only recommend a glass per day and, strangely, no leather mat nap.
22. "To clear the face of freckles"
If you want to get rid of freckles today, you'll need to do laser surgery or a chemical peel, but removing them in the 18th century was a simple matter of rummaging through your garden (results not guaranteed). The recipe for clearing the sun-made spots involves "Bean flowers, white lilly flowers, & elder flowers" steeped in "4 pints of blood of the vine & may dew 10 days." The good news is you get to wash your face with it as much as you want. The bad news is that you need to cut your vines in April or May and save what bleeds in a bottle, so if you're anxious to get rid of those freckles before spring comes, you might be out of luck. Popular home remedies in our century include face masks made with everything from lemon juice and apple cider vinegar to bananas and mint.
23. "For mother fits and vapours"
They're both references to fainting, although the fits could include laughing, crying, choking, and/or "a ball like wind rising to the pit of the stomach." Phisick's remedies include "20 to 30 drops of spirit of hartshorn in a good large glass of fair water," "4 to 10 drops of spirit of caster," and burning a piece of blue cloth under your nose. However, the best cure, and perhaps the best of all of them in the book is the simplest: "Fling a good glass of water on your face."
If you're experiencing mother fits and melancholy, you'll need some Gum Galbanum and Myrrh.
24. "For the plague"
The bubonic plague has killed tens of millions of people throughout and beyond three major pandemic waves in history. It's the most infamous of the plagues caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, but there are also septicemic and pneumonic varieties. Phisick doesn't make it clear which one this is for, but it doesn't matter all that much because none of the remedies would have had much chance. Without antibiotic treatment, the death rate for bubonic is between 30 percent and 60 percent, and the death rate for untreated pneumonic plague is 100 percent.
Phisick gives it a go anyway, suggesting that plague sufferers perform a litany of tasks to heal themselves. The list begins with making a tonic of peppers, ginger, nutmeg, and other spices to drink three hot spoonfuls at a time followed by a sweat. Then, burning frankincense pitch and tar in every room of your house every day (although "Brimstone ... is best"). There's also a conserve of figs, rue, wood sorrel, treacle, and green walnuts, and the ward of keeping a nosegay of rue at hand at all times and smoking tobacco. If you're traveling a lot with the plague, be sure to only drink wine and beer, especially if you can get wormwood beer.
25. "To cause sleep"
If you're troubled by the woes of the day or still wide-eyed thinking about the meat suppository Phisick suggests for pinworms, you've got a handful of not-as-invasive options to get some shut-eye. The easiest, if you have access to breast milk, is to combine it with red rose leaves and a slice of nutmeg inside a small cloth pouch that you apply to both temples. You might also comb your hair with vinegar and nutmeg or utilize the tried-and-true laudanum (sure to be a knock-out).
You might also try "2 spoonfulls of diacodium," which is a syrup made from poppies. You can spruce it up with some almond milk for flavor. If nothing on the list is working, the author includes a recipe for "An Excellent Quieting Draft," which is "3 spoonfulls of milk water, 1 of plauge [water], 1 of diacodium, & 10 drops of laudinum." Essentially, if the poppies don't work, and the morphine doesn't work, just combine them. Excellent quieting draft, indeed.