Category Archives: Strange cures

1879: Music lessons cause “menstrual mischief”

menstrual
Dr Robert Lawson Tait

Robert Lawson Tait (1845-1899) was a Scottish physician, famous for his pioneering research and treatments in gynaecology and abdominal surgery. Educated in his native Edinburgh, Tait moved south after graduation and set up practice in Birmingham. He became interested in reproductive medicine after watching helplessly as two patients suffered agonising deaths from ectopic pregnancies.

Tait began to research, develop and undertake surgical interventions for conditions with high mortality rates. In his three-decade career, Tait conducted and refined several groundbreaking operations, including excision of the ovaries, ruptured Fallopian tubes, appendectomies and gallbladder removal.

For all his surgical brilliance, however, Tait was prone to antiquated views, particularly about the causes of ovarian and reproductive disease. Like less esteemed doctors, Tait rejected viral and bacterial causes and instead put a good deal of blame on social factors. He was particularly opposed to girls and young women being subjected to music lessons. Tait argued that music was “a strong excitant of the emotions” that “agitated ovarian activity” and disturbed the developing female reproductive organs.

In the case of a teenage girl who was bedridden by hyperaemia and anaemia during her monthly period, Tait’s first step was to cancel her piano lessons:

“My first advice was that the patient should be removed from school and that for six months, all instruction, especially in music, should cease. I notice music especially, for I am quite certain that instruction in that art, as carried out in boarding schools, has to answer for a great deal of menstrual mischief. To keep a young girl during her first efforts of sexual development, seated upright on a music still with her back unsupported, drumming vigorously at a piano for several hours, can only be detrimental.

In life, Tait was a charismatic but unusual figure. Short and rotund, he waddled like a penguin and was occasionally given to eccentric dress. He was also a big drinker and notorious womaniser, who apparently enjoyed using the female reproductive organs as well as treating them.

In his final years, Tait was accused of fathering an illegitimate child with one of his nurses, a scandal that brought him some public discredit. His premature death in 1899 was ascribed to renal failure, though some believe it was brought on by venereal disease.

Source: Robert Lawson Tait, Diseases of Women, 1879. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1821: Hot iron and straightjacket cures self pollution

self pollution
One word: “Ouch”.

In 1826 the British medical journal Lancet reported a case of “idiocy accompanied with nymphomania”, successfully treated by Dr Graefe of Berlin. The unnamed patient was born in 1807 and remained apparently healthy until 14 months of age, at which point she was struck down by severe fever and bedridden for almost two years. This illness took a toll on the girl’s mental faculties: according to her childhood physician she was unable to talk and “exhibited unequivocal marks of idiocy”.

The patient’s deterioration continued until 1821, shortly after her 14th birthday, when Dr Graefe was first called to attend:

“He soon perceived that the girl had an insatiable propensity for self-pollution, which she performed either by rubbing her extremities on a chair or by the reciprocal fright of her thighs. From this time there could be no doubt [about] the treatment of the case.”

Dr Graefe ordered a three-step treatment for self-pollution:

“A bandage was applied, capable of preventing friction in the sitting position… A straight waistcoat was put on her at bedtime, and counter-irritation by the application of a hot iron to the neighbourhood of the part affected.”

In June 1822 Dr Graefe, deciding that insufficient progress had been made, carried out an “excision of the clitoris”. After the wound had healed the patient made a slow but steady recovery, to the point where she can “talk, read, reckon accounts, execute several kinds of needlework and play a few easy pieces on the pianoforte.”

Source: Revue Medicale, Oct. 1826, cited in The Lancet, vol. 9, 1826. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1696: Salmon’s anti-nymphomania lemonade

nymphomania
William Salmon

William Salmon (1644-1713) was an English apothecary, quack physician and author. Salmon was born in London but little is known of his upbringing. In his late teens, Salmon set up a medical practice in Smithfield, treating all manner of illnesses and injuries for a low fee. He had no formal education but was a busy autodidact, accumulating and digesting a large collection of medical texts.

In time Salmon became part-physician, part-showman and part-salesman, flogging his own brand of cure-all pills and draughts. In 1671 the self-declared ‘Professor of Physic’ published his first medical book, Synopsis Medicinae. It was the first of more 25 books published by Salmon during his lifetime, almost all of which were copies, translations or adaptations of earlier works.

In 1696, Salmon released The Family Dictionary, a simple medical guide for household use. One instalment provides a cure for ‘trembling members’:

“If the members tremble and shake, that you cannot at certain times hold them still… anoint the parts where you find the trepidation with powers of lavender and drink two drams of water made with man’s or swine’s blood, brought to putrefaction… This must be frequently repeated for a month’s time.”

For gout, Salmon suggests a poultice of hot kite’s dung, camphor and soap. Freckles can be removed by mixing blackbird droppings with lemon juice and smearing on the affected areas. One of Salmon’s more interesting ‘cures’ is his recipe for anti-nymphomaniac lemonade:

“Lemonade: Scrape lemon peel, as much as you think fit, into water and sugar, and add a few drops of the oil of sulphur, with some slices of lemon, observing always to put half a pound of sugar to a pint of water. This is very wholesome for the stomach, creates appetite and good digestion… And in the case of the distemper called furor uterinus [‘uterine fury’ or nymphomania] take the feathers of a partridge, burn them for a considerable time under the party’s nose, so that the fume may ascend the nostrils, and drink a quarter of a pint of this lemonade after it.”

Source: William Salmon, The Family Dictionary, London, 1696. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1579: Light a home with dung-dissolved glow worms

Thomas Lupton was an English moralist, eccentric and author of the 16th century. A staunch Protestant and an advocate for public welfare, Lupton wrote numerous manuscripts on several topics in the last quarter of the 1500s. One of these, the ornately titled A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts, was a disjointed collection of recipes, hints and medical receipts, gathered from various sources.

Like others of his era, Lupton’s tips ranged from practical common-sense advice to Paracelsian nonsense and bizarre wives’ tales. For example, to “clear and strengthen” your eyes, Lupton says to “wash them in the morning with your own water [urine]”. To stop a nosebleed, tie a thin thread tightly on your little finger. To strengthen the vital parts and “chief members” [genitals], or to avoid the plague, drink “burning gold quenched in our wine”. To kill intestinal worms, drink ox gall. If you’ve lost your voice, go to bed with a piece of raw beef tied to your forehead. For haemorrhoids, apply black wool or brown paper.

For warts, Lupton cites a common medieval treatment:

“Cut off the head of a quick eel and rub the warts all over well with the same blood, as it runs from the eel, then bury the head of the said eel deep in the ground. When the head is rotten, they will fall away.”

For chronic tooth decay and pain:

“The powder of earthworms, mice dung or a hart’s tooth, put into the holes of teeth that be worm-eaten, doth pluck them up by the roots, or make them fall out without any other instrument.”

Finally, Lupton offers a means of lighting your home, three centuries before the advent of electricity:

“Worms that shine in the night, called glow worms, being well stopped in a glass and covered with horse dung, standing there a certain time, will be dissolved into a liquor, which being mixed with a like proportion of quicksilver [mercury]… and then put up in the midst of a house will give such a bright light in the dark, as the Moon doth when she shines in a bright night.”

Source: Thomas Lupton, A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts, 1590 ed. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1748: Bear babies by broiling buzzard balls

More handy hints from the Zoologia Medicinalis Hibernica, published in 1748 by Irish priest and naturalist John K’eogh. The Zoologia is essentially an encyclopedia of the animal kingdom, focusing on the medical applications of each particular creature:

“Trout fat is useful to cure chapped lips and the fundament, the grieved parts being anointed therewith…”

“Butterflies reduced into powder and mixed with honey cure the alopecia or baldness, being externally applied. Pulverised and taken in any fit vehicle, they provide urine…”

“Otter liver, pulverised and taken in the quantity of two drams in any popular vehicle, stops haemorrhages and all manner of fluxes. The testicles, made into powder and drank, help to cure the epilepsy… Shoes made of the skin cure pains of the feet and sinews… A cap made thereof helps to cure vertigo and headache…”

“Rat’s dung reduced to powder cures the bloody flux… The ashes of the whole rat… being blown into the eyes, clears the sight… The dung made into powder and mixed with bear’s grease cures the alopecia…”

“The testicles of a buzzard, broiled or roasted [and] eaten with salt… or two scruples of powder of [buzzard testicles] mixed with half a scruple of ant’s eggs, are spermatogenetic, making men and women fruitful.”

Source: John K’eogh, Zoologia Medicinalis Hibernica, 1748. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.