Friday, May 6, 2016

1600-1700: Some abhorent remedies for asthma

So you have asthma in 1618, and you approach your physician about your problem. You sit in a wooden chair opposite his voluminous desk, leaning on his desk to expand your chest, your chest heaving with each slow breath.

As you're explaining your dilemma, in a huffy fashion, he opens a book on his desk.  You observe the title: "Materia Medica."  You wait as he sifts through the pages, and says, "hmmmmm.  Let's see here."  His finger traces what he's reading.  He leans back in his chair.  

He says, "Now, according to this "Materia Medica" we have a few options here.  Do you have anyone who can hunt for you."

You say, "Well, I'd love to hunt for myself, yet the consequences of doing it put me here."  

"I see." He leans back in his chair, puckers his lips as if in deep thought.

"So what do I need to do?" You ask.

"Well, it says here," he picks up the book, turns it so you can see the page, and he points to the heading "Asthma."  You read the section he's pointing to:
  • Worms
  • Lozenges of dried vipers
  • Foxes Lungs
You say, "Well, I think I can find someone to get me a fox, but I'm not sure about the viper.  I think getting one of those would be next to impossible." You look into the doctor's eyes.  "Don't tell me a viper bite will cure me, doctor."

Your comment induces a laugh from the doctor, and you join in briefly.  The laughter induces a cough, and you produce a large amount of sputum.  The doctor reaches into his desk and offers you a handkerchief.

For kicks and grins, here are some of the other remedies in 17th century pharmacopaeas:
  • Powder's of precious stones
  • Moss from the skull of the victum of violent death
  • Human urine
  • Blood
  • Fat
  • Bile
  • Horns
  • Crab's claws
  • Crab's eyes
  • Bones
  • Bone marrow
  • Sexual organs
  • Eggs
  • Excreta of animals of all sorts
  • Spider-webs
  • Fur
  • Feathers
  • Hair
  • Scorpions
No wonder physicians struggled to gain respect.  To their credit, though these remedies offered hope to patients, and there were also many other remedies that had an actual benefit to the patient.  Considering the medical ignorance of the time, physicians who offered such remedies must have felt good about their efforts to help a sick person.

Such remedies were slowly phased out of the pharmacopoeia, mainly due to the works of men like William Heberden (1710-1801) who championed to put "diseases upon a scientific basis," and "who did a most important service to therapeutics by dispelling current superstitions and banishing them forever from the pharmacopoeia" in his 1745 book "Essays on Mithridatium Theriaca."*  (1, page 370)

Obviously most of these abhorrent remedies were slowly phased out of the pharmacopoeia, particularly as better remedies were introduced.  For example, stramonium was introduced to the London Pharmacopoeia in 1721 by Sir Hans Sloane.  A few decades later, the authors of the 5th London Pharmacopeia of 1746 condemned the old practice of astrology and folk medicine, dropping the following remedies: (1, page 408)
  • Human fat
  • Spider Webs
  • Moss from human skulls
  • Unicorn's horn
  • Virgin's milk
  • Bones from stag's heart (1, page 408)
Can you guess what was in your asthma medicine?

*Mithridatium = remedy that cures everything, particularly poisons; theriaca = a compound of 64 drugs believed to be a cure for all poisons)

  1. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An introduction to the history of medicine," 1922, Philadelphia, W.B. Saunders Company, page 291
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