Afflictions of the ear can be maddening, literally so, as the 1st century Roman medical writer Aulus Cornelius Celsus noted in his treatise De Medicina. But no matter how much ear pain "unsettles the mind," you do not want to try these 15 remedies—recommended by physicians over the last 2500 years or so—at home.
Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, had a crafty solution for earaches. "If the ear is painful, wrap up some wool around your finger, pour on some warm oil, then place the wool in the palm of your hand and then place it in the ear until the patient believes something has come out. Then deceitfully throw it into the fire." Considering the next 14 options on this list, a placebo might have best approximated "first, do no harm" after all. (Hippocrates, Epidemics 6.5, 400 BCE.)
2. ENEMA, INDUCED VOMITING
Hippocrates treating woman, 5th c. B.C.E. relief, Archaeological Museum of Piraeus. Image credit: The History Blog
In case of an ear fracture, Hippocrates took a firmer stance. "[T]he body must be reduced, more especially if there be danger lest the ear suppurate; it will also be better to open the bowels, and if the patient can be readily made to vomit, this may be accomplished by means of the syrmaism [i.e. loading the stomach with heavy things, such as honey and strong hydromel, along with radishes and the bulbous roots of the narcissus]." (Hippocrates, On the Articulations, 40, 400 BCE)
3. WOLF'S MILK, PEPPER & OLD OIL, OR MUSK, OPIUM & EGG WHITE
Galen, the father of pharmacology, was so appalled at the dishonesty of Hippocrates' sleight-of-hand faux treatment that he could only dismiss that passage as a later interpolation, not the advice of the great man himself. However, Galen's own remedies for earaches might make a patient yearn for a placebo. They included a combination of wolf's milk or pepper mixed with old oil for an earache brought on by a cold, and for very severe pain, a mixture of opium, musk and the white of an egg. Both concoctions were to be warmed and poured directly into the ear. (Galen, Of the Composition of Local Remedies, Book III, 2nd century CE.)
4. BREAST MILK & ONIONS/LEEKS
Engraving of Pliny the Elder with The Natural History. Image credit: The History Blog
Gaius Plinius Secundus Maior, a.k.a. Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), naturalist and philosopher, dedicated a book of his magnum opus, The Natural History, to plant-based remedies collected (and uncritically repeated) from earlier, mainly Greek, sources. He lists 27 medicinal uses for onions and another 32 for cutleek, a dwarf leek varietal. Both were mixed with a woman's breast milk to treat ear pain, tinnitus, and deafness.
"In combination with woman's milk, [onion] is employed for affections of the ears; and in cases of singing in the ears and hardness of hearing, it is injected into those organs with goose-grease or honey." (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History 20.20)
"Mixed with goats' gall, or else honied wine in equal proportions, [cutleeks] are used for affections of the ears, and, combined with woman's milk, for singing in the ears." (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History 20.21)
5. BOILED EARTHWORMS
Portrait of Dioscorides, Folio 2b from MS. Arab. d.138. By permission of The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Image credit: The History Blog
Pedanius Dioscorides (c.40-90 CE) was an army doctor who served with the Roman legions in Greece, Gaul, Italy, and Asia Minor. He compiled his knowledge gathered on the job and from studying at the Great Library of Alexandria into a compendium of plant, animal, and mineral remedies that would become the primary botany text in Europe for 2000 years. His advice was to treat earaches with earthworms boiled with goose grease and dropped in the ear canal. (Pedanius Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Book II [PDF], 64 CE.)
6. GROUND ROLY POLIES
The Gaul Marcellus Empiricus was a magistrate under Theodosius I and a physician practicing in Burdigala (modern-day Bordeaux) in the late 4th and early 5th century. His sole surviving work, De Medicamentis Liber, offers pharmacology, folk remedies, and magic incantations to cure what ails ya. One of his remedies for an earache required a number of roly polies (a type of woodlouse that rolls up like an armadillo to protect itself, also called a pill bug or potato bug) or the pill millipede (a similar-looking but different species). It's not clear which species Marcellus Empiricus meant, as both were deemed to have medicinal uses for centuries.
"Cutiones, called polypodae by the Greeks, are hard little multiped animals which when touched roll themselves in the roundest of orbs. Cook many of these with olive oil in a bowl of soft iron as a remedy for afflicted ears."
7. SEA SNAILS BOILED IN OIL
Paulus Aegineta (c.625-690 CE), Byzantine physician and author of the encyclopedia Medical Compendium in Seven Books, listed several uses for buccinae, or large sea snails from the Buccinidae family. The burned shells acted as desiccants for chronic open wounds. The insides were good for earaches. "That part of them which is as it were their flesh when alive, if boiled in oil, renders the oil a useful injection for relieving earache."
8. LION BRAINS
Persian physician Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (865-925 CE), known as Rhazes, recommended ear drops made from the brain of a lion mixed with oil. (Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, The Comprehensive Book on Medicine, ca. 925 CE.)
9. RAM'S GALL, BUTTER, & THE PATIENT'S URINE
, a collection of Anglo-Saxon folk remedies written in Old English in the mid-10th century, advises earache and deafness sufferers to secure "rams gall, with urine of the patient himself after a night's fasting, mix with butter and pour into the ear." A recipe for eye salve from the same manuscript was recently found to be amazingly effective at killing the very hard-to-kill MRSA superbug, so hey, maybe there is something to pouring your own fasting urine down your ear.
10. EAR-LIKE PLANTS
Cyclamen persicum silver. Photo by FrancineRiez. Image credit: The History Blog
German-Swiss alchemist and physician Philippus von Hohenheim, a.k.a. Paracelsus (1493-1541), was a firm believer in the Doctrine of Signatures, which held that God had left clear clues to healing properties in the way a plant looked. Because the leaf of the Persian cyclamen looked like an ear, Paracelsus used it to treat earaches. The fact that this pointy, heart-shaped, occasionally scallop-edged leaf looks nothing like a human ear to me is just one of the major flaws in the Doctrine of Signatures.
11. LEECHES IN THE NOSTRILS
Woman applies leeches. From Historia Medica by Guillaume van den Bossche, 1639. Image credit: The History Blog
Guido Guidi, an Italian surgeon and the grandson of Old Master painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, who served as King Francis I of France's personal physician, was prudently restrained when treating ear pain, recommending that the opening of the ear canal should not be stopped up to allow the wax its proper egress. His approach took a sharp left when he prescribed leeches placed in the nostrils as a cure for ear congestion. (Guido Guidi (a.k.a. Vidus Vidius), Ars Medicinalis, 1595.)
12. GOOSE GREASE, CAPON GREASE, FOX GREASE
The melted fat of animals wasn't just used as a medium to deliver dubious remedies down the ear canals; it could be a remedy in and of itself. Goose grease was applied to the ear to combat "that noise that precedes hardness of hearing" (tinnitis). Capon grease was recommended for "dolours of the ears," preferably old capon grease which "califies [warms] and resolves more potently." As for the fox, "his fat melted, and poured into the ear diseased, allays its dolour." (Jean de Renou, A Medicinal Dispensatory, 1657.)
13. MERCURY, LEAD & LARD
Chronic eczema of the ear causes acute pain and itching that leaves the ear red, inflamed, cracked, scaly and oozing. Probably not something you should slather toxic heavy metals all over, then. Laurence Turnbull, eye and ear doctor at the Howard Hospital of Philadelphia, thought otherwise. The ingredients in an ointment to treat broken, red, suppurating ears he included in A Clinical Manual of the Diseases of the Ear (1872) are lead acetate, zinc oxide, mercury chloride, mercury nitrate, lard, and pure palm oil.
14. ONE TO SIX LEECHES ON THE EARDRUM
From a "Report on Otology" to the Maine Medical Association filed by one E.E. Holt, M.D., of Portland in 1879: "Should [the eardrum] be found inflamed, having a pinkish hue, or the vessels along the ridge representing the handle of the malleus be congested, the diagnosis is quite certain, and from one to half a dozen leeches should be applied."
15. DR. THOMAS' ECLECTRIC OIL
Trading card of Dr. Thomas Electric Oil, ca. 1885. Image credit: The History Blog
Guaranteed to cure all earaches in two minutes, Dr. Thomas' Eclectric Oil was a patent medicine that flourished in the lucrative quack remedy market of the 19th century. It probably did make ear pain disappear quite quickly, because in addition to various essential herbal oils (wintergreen, oregano), the 19th century version of Dr. Thomas' Eclectric Oil included a toxic anesthetic (chloroform), an addictive painkiller (tincture of opium), the poison that killed Socrates (hemlock), a solvent that strips paint and causes neurological damage when inhaled (turpentine), and an alcohol chaser. By the 1920s, the hard stuff was regulated under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the ingredient list had been whittled down to turpentine, camphor, tar, thyme and fish oil. No more chloroform and opium, no more two-minute relief.