We have referred in the past to the economy which used to be practiced by our fore-fathers. Thus, for instance, it was customary to use leeches over and over again and there are instances of infection with syphilis by leeches that had been previously used on luetic patients. But we believe that the everlasting cathartic pill beats everything in the line of economy. This pill was a little bullet composed of metallic antimony which had or was believed to have the property of purging as often as it was swallowed. It is not conceivable that it might have had such property, for it is possible that a minute amount was dissolved by the gastro-intestinal juices and this amount, plus the suggestion, was sufficient to produce cathartic action. Then again the everlasting pill probably aided peristalsis by its mechanical weight and motion. The bullet was passed out, recovered from the feces and used over and over again. This, as Dr. J. A. Paris says, was economy in right earnest, for a single pill would serve a whole family during their lives and might be transmitted as an heirloom to posterity.
The "everlasting antimony pill" is mentioned by Dr. Stephen Maturin in The Ionian Mission.
An interesting procedure [described in the Sushruta Samhita, an Indian text from the sixth century BC] is the use of the heads of certain ants for the suturing of intestinal perforations:
. . . large black ants should be applied even to the perforated intestines . . . and their bodies should be separated from their heads after they had firmly bitten the perforated parts with their claws [jaws]. After that the intestines with the head of the ants attached to them should be gently pushed back into the cavity and reinstated in their original situation therein.
This procedure is also mentioned in the Caroka Samhita [probably third century BC]:
And if there is a perforation of the intestines, the part should be made to be bitten by big black ants and seeing that the perforation is welll closed by the firm bites taken by the ants, their bodies must be cut off. Then putting the intestines back in their place, the abdominal skin should be sutured with the needle.
Although suturing with ant heads was unknown in Hippocratic medicine, it has been used in primitive medical practices in South America and Africa.
Of all the classical authorities, only Dioscorides appears to have recognized the actions of plant alkaloids. First he grouped them together by drug affinities: for example, he put plants containing the papaverine alkaloids in one group and those containing tropane alkaloids in another. Second, he employed many of the same plants that we have rediscovered and currently emp0loy. Many of those alkaloids he said were good as antitumor agents. One such plant is the squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium L.). In 1958 a chemical compound from this plant was found to have "strong antitumor activity against sarcoma." . . . Although the plant was not widely employed* against tumors [in the late Classical and medieval periods] . . . , the continuous reliance on the authority of Dioscorides makes it nonetheless likely that there was occasional use of the plant for cancer treatments. this remedy has persisted in folk medicine, so that modern investigators learned in 1952-1952 that the squirting cucumber was taken orally for cancer.
*Note: the fact that squirting cucumber was not mentioned in later sources doesn't mean it was not in use. Dioscorides' Materia Medica was frequently copied and widely available throughout the middle ages, so instructions for use of squirting cucumber could easily have been transmitted continually from copies of the original source from the first century on into the Renaissance and beyond.
The autumn crocus is principally known as a very pretty flower that looks a lot like a true crocus, but blooms in autumn rather than spring and contains a deadly poison called colchicine, similar to arsenic in its effect. Since autumn crocus can be mistaken for wild garlic (ramsons), we are wisely warned away from it. Ancient and medieval herbologists were well aware of its toxicity, and many physicians were reluctant to use it for that very reason. However, some eminent physicians, including Dioscorides and Avicenna, prescribed it as a "chemotherapy" treatment for cancers. The results were not by any means miraculous, but these early experimenters had the right idea. According to John Riddle in "Ancient and Medieval Chemotherapy for Cancer,"Isis 73 (3): 313-330:
Autumn crocus contains a sufficient concentration of colchicines for pharmaceutical efficacy, but on the basis of modern studies, we conclude that the drug would arrest tumor mitoses in man but would not produce a complete regression in a malignant tumor. An ancient or medieval physician, treating a malignant growth topically and possibly internally, would probably observe a beneficial response but not a “cure.”
Riddle's article is fascinating and goes far beyond the single example of autumn crocus to illustrate the remarkable sophistication of these often undervalued early researchers and practitioners:
A search through the leading pharmaceutical and medical authorities of the Greco-Roman, classical Islamic, and medieval periods reveals that they recommended many of the same natural sources as those for the compounds discovered in the 1960s and 1970s and currently utilized in cancer treatments.
But here is just a little more on the history of autumn crocus "chemotherapy" to show the level of scientific awareness with which ancient and medieval physicians approached its use:
In the first century Dioscorides (fl. ca. A.D. 50-79) employed a drug made from autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale L.), the very plant investigated by A/ P. Dustin in 1938 as an antitumor agent. Dioscorides recommended that the plant (kolchikon) be “soaked in wine and administered to dissolve tumors (oidemata) and growths (phumata) not yet making pus.” . . . Mattaeus Platearius (d. 1161?) and Avicenna employed the plant in ways that suggest antitumoral activity. . . . Abu Mansur (fl. 968-977) said that the drug concocted from it is poisonous but dries up old sores. In light of this evidence one can conclude that prior to the thirteenth century autumn crocus was employed as an anticancer agent, but that its use was not widespread. The reluctance may have been due to the belief expressed by Hildegard [von Bingen], who said that it was more of a poison than a medicine.
Which of course it was, but all medicine is a balancing act between killing and curing, and the ancient and medieval doctors who used autumn crocus apparently knew what they were doing and got results that were promising enough for them to recommend its use to others.
You might not know what it is, but you know what it does. It's a
substance that is apparently unique to asparagus, and when you run it
through your kidneys, well . . . . Kenneth Kidd of the Toronto Star tells you all you need to know:
You won't find asparagusic acid in anything else we eat, although its
close relatives turn up in everything from tropical mangroves to marine
worms. Asparagusic acid, it turns out, is what young asparagus
use to ward off parasites. As the plant ages, however, the
We would have seen this coming, really, if anyone had first consulted Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson
quotes a slightly earlier book by Queen Anne's physician, a Scot by the
name of John Arbuthnot, who wrote that asparagus "affects the urine
with a foetid smell (especially if cut when they are white) and
therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the
kidneys."Arbuthnot adds: "When they are older, and begin to ramify, they lose this quality; but then they are not so agreeable."
I pride myself on my knowledge of literary trivia, but I didn't know this. Of course, Pope doesn't mention it in his Epistle.
The concept of a tooth-worm, which according to popular belief, caused
caries and periodontitis, has existed in diverse cultures and across
the ages. During the Enlightenment, however, the theory of the
tooth-worm was assigned by medical doctors almost exclusively to
superstition. Even so, the idea that toothache was caused by gnawing
worms held on even into this century. There were many different ideas
with regard to the appearance of tooth-worms. In England, for instance,
it was thought that the tooth-worm looked like an eel. In Northern
Germany, people supposed the tooth-worm to be red, blue, and gray and
in many cases the worm was compared to a maggot. The gnawing worm was
held responsible for many evils and, in particular, was blamed for
toothache provoked by caries. . . . In popular medicine, numerous therapies were applied in
order to eradicate the tooth-worm. In addition to the fumigations with
henbane seeds, which allowed the "tooth-worm" to develop in the form of
burst seeds, there were also magical formulas and oaths. -- W.E. Gerabek, Clin Oral Investig. 1999 Apr 3(1):1-6.
The fumigation of worms from the teeth by burning seeds has a long history. Scribonium Largus is the first to mention fumigation with smoke of burning henbane . . . . (Townend, “The Story of the Toothworm,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 15 (1) January 1944: 46,47)
This bears some resemblance to the Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft formula quoted by Townend . . . . The Anglo-Saxon formula is as follows; "For tooth worm, take acorn meal and henbane seed and wax of all equally much, mingle these together, work into a wax candle and burn it, let it reek into the mouth, put a black cloth under it, then will the worms fall onto it." Jacques Houllier (1498-1562) condemns this procedure, saying that when henbane seed is burnt what appear to be little worms fly from it even if the smoke is not near an affected tooth.
The French blamed the English and the English blamed the French, but apparently Columbus really did bring syphilis home with him from the New World. Scientific American reports:
A new study provides what scientists say is the most convincing evidence to date that the Italian adventurer and some of his crew contracted the disease during their voyage to the New World—and unwittingly introduced it to the old one circa 1493.
The great pox was not a fair exchange for the small pox, though, which came west in the early 1500s. According to the seminal demographic research of the Incas by Henry Dobyns:
. . . smallpox arrived around 1525, seven years ahead of the Spanish [arrival in Peru]. Brought to Mexico apparently by a single sick Spaniard, it swept south [north as well, of course -- GH] and eliminated more than half the population of the Incan empire. Smallpox claimed the Incan dictator Huayna Capac and much of his family, setting off a calamitous war of succession. So complete was the chaos that Francisco Pizarro was able to seize an empire the size of Spain and Italy combined with a force of 168 men.
For more information on the incredible research that has reshaped the way scholars think about the pre-Columbian and transitional Americas, read Charles C. Mann's fascinating book 1491.