Pharmacopoeias, which were comprehensive lists of drugs compiled during the Renaissance period included practically every known organic and inorganic substance. One fourteenth-century recipe for relieving dental pain, for example, recommended combining gall of a cow, heart of a magpie, mouse fat, cow dung, lice and oil of cloves (the only active ingredient recognised in our time).

Patients have chewed, imbibed, sucked, or suffered treatment with crocodile dung, teeth of swine, hooves of asses, spermatic fluid of frogs, unicorn fat, fly specks, lozenges of dried vipers, powder of precious stones, oils derived from ants, earthworms and spiders, bricks,feathers, hair, human perspiration and moss scraped from the victim of a violent death. George Washington is a good example of the treatment lavished on the wealthy in the eighteenth century. When he had a throat infection, complicated by pneumonia, it was said that he was fortunate ‘he could afford the best medical care available’. This wonderful treatment consisted of a mixture of molasses, vinegar and butter. Vomiting and diarrhoea were induced. But still he lapsed. In desperation, his physicians applied irritating poultices to blister his feet and throat while draining several pints of blood. Then, mercifully, he died.

Also pity the British monarch, Charles II. He was treated by the best physicians of the day, using the multiple treatment methods then believed appropriate for treating pain. Many are now known to have little therapeutic value and some may have actually done more harm than good. The treatment given to Charles II as he lay dying in 1685 was:

‘A pint of blood was extracted from his right arm and a half pint from his left shoulder. This was followed by an emetic, sneezing powder, bleedings, soothing potions, a plaster of pitch, and pigeon dung was smeared on his feet. Potions containing 10 different substances, chiefly herbs, as well as 40 drops of extract of human skull, were swallowed. Finally, application of the bezoar stone (gallstones from sheep or goats) was prescribed. Following extensive treatment, the king died.’


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