Mistress Sancreedi's Apothecary Shop

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Welcome to the Apothecary Shop! The doctor will see you very shortly. In the meantime, you might like to browse through the following hair-raising tales of seventeenth and eighteenth century medical practice. Naturally, we hope this won't serve to discourage you from continuing your patronage of this excellent establishment ...


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Seventeenth century experiments in blood transfusion seemed always to involve transfusion from one species to another. One Jean Baptiste Denis, Professor of Philosophy and Mathematics at the famous school at Montpellier, after successfully transfusing blood from a calf to a dog (we must assume that "successfully" means that the dog survived and appeared to gain some benefit from the process) decided thereafter that animal blood might prove not only equally efficacious in treating human complaints but actually a remedy superior to human blood, which must of necessity be corrupted by the passions, the vices, and general immorality of the human animal.

His first experiment was promising. With the help of a surgeon, Paul Emmerez, he injected about ten ounces of arterial blood from a lamb into the arm of a fifteen-year old boy suffering from acute lethergy after excessive venesection (that is, bleeding by a medical practitioner) in the treatment of a stubborn fever. The operation was a complete success. The boy regained all of his former energy, intelligence, spirits, and appetite. The only unfortunate effect was a trivial one: a sensation of great heat in his arm.

Subsequent experiments, involving large transfusions of calf's blood, were less successful. One patient suffered a rapid and irregular pulse, pains in his arm, vomiting, bloody urine, and diarrhea. Initially, Denis saw no reason to blame any of these symptoms on his treatment, considering the patient's general ill health before the treatment. But when a seemingly successful attempt to cure another patient of insanity proved only transitory, and when that patient died after a second treatment, Denis and Emmerez declined to make further experiments and devoted themselves thereafter to more conventional methods.


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The Breath of Virgins


Philip Thicknesse, who apparently owed his medical expertise to his years as a cooper (barrel-maker) made a name for himself recommending the following prescription: inhaling the breath of virgins. This was a variation on a popular folk remedy involving the breath of cows. The cows' credentials must, one supposes, be impeccable, but one wonders what criteria was recommended for establishing the authenticity of the virgins.

Sir John Oglander recommended fried dung as treatment for a bad bruise. Whether the dung was to be administered topically or to be taken internally remains unknown. Both methods would have recommended themselves to medical practitioners of the period. Uncooked but strained, horse dung was said to be equally soothing for a burn or a scald.

An even more repulsive remedy: four ounces of mummy cut small and put into a glazed vessel with ten ounces of spirits of wine, set in horse's dung, and allowed to digest for a month. What this was supposed to cure (perhaps a penchant for home remedies) our source does not say.

The recommended treatment for the bite of an adder was rather more appetizing: hazel nuts, rue, and garlic mashed with treacle and combined with beer. A similar remedy was prescribed in the case of the bite of a mad dog.


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The Opthalminator


"Chevalier" John Taylor, a trained physician who was rumored to have gained experience as an oculist by experimenting on and subsequently blinding five of his own horses, somehow managed to gain a position as eye-doctor to King George the II of England, styling himself thereafter as "Opthalminator Pontifical, Imperial, and Royal" (they knew how to turn a rolling phrase in those days). He claimed that he had visited every country in Europe and that he was in possession of numerous medical secrets and remedies which he dared not allow to fall into unqualified or unworthy hands. Rather poetically, the "Opthalminator" died in obscurity at Prague — totally blind.

Cockroach tea was a recognized remedy for kidney disease, and a bolus of spiders was occasionally taken against fever. For whooping cough: fried mice. For apoplexy: pigeon's blood. For sore eyes: a poultice of rotten apples.

Rotting teeth were always a problem considering the primitive state of dentistry, and the treatments could be somewhat drastic. Some patients had the nerves in their ears severed to relieve the pain. Cavities were drilled with a hand drill and then filled with molten metals: lead or tin in the case of the less affluent sufferer, gold in the case of a wealthy patient.


Now, what fine remedy can Mistress Sancreedi interest you in today?


Sources: A History of Medicine, by Lois N. Magner, The Pageant of Stuart England, by Elizabeth Burton, Magic, Medicine, and Quackery, by Eric Maple, and Daily Life in Johnson's London, by Richard B. Schwartz.