Thursday, March 21, 2013

History: The Home Remedy

While sawing off bones and applying blisters may have been more dramatic, the surgeon at sea was usually more occupied with the dispensing of pills and syrups to keep his mates going. Often, perhaps more often than we might suppose, these little remedies came from home rather than the wards of a training hospital. The truth is, most naval surgeons had no formal training and most pirate surgeons were simply kidnapped away from various navies.

The cures were generally for such recognizable maladies as colds, sore throats, indigestion, nausea and "the itch" (more on that in a minute.) Some of these are documented, to one degree or another, in the large seafaring memoirs of doctors like Alexander Exquemelin but most are more readily found in writings more close to shore. Mrs. Child in her The Family Nurse of 1837, for instance, gives us some insight into the time-tested cures that were certainly in use for centuries when she wrote them down.

Just as a few examples, colds could be treated by soaking the feet in warm water, binding them up with a warm onion each and then putting the patient to bed with a half pint of strong penny royal or calamint tea. Mrs. Child assures the reader that this is "almost sure to cure a cold."

Likewise, a small lump of saltpeter held in the mouth until it dissolves will help alleviate a sore throat. Wrapping the neck in warm flannels will hurry the process along. Given that saltpeter can be poisonous, one imagines that dosing would need to be carefully monitored.

A tablespoonful of "the brine in which rennet is preserved is extremely salutary in cases of indigestion and an acid stomach." This ancestor of Alka-Seltzer, Mrs. Child says, "is less disagreeable" if taken with a little water, "but it is better to take it clear."

"Common ashes," as from a fire, stirred into twice as much boiling water is given a teaspoon at a time "at intervals" to help control nausea and vomiting. Mrs. Child notes that "some prefer to stir it in cider" and given that cider was most often an alcoholic beverage at the time the results must have varied to say the least.

"The odor of burning feathers, horn or leather, is good for hysteric fainting fits," and "O'Meara, surgeon to Napoleon, declares that a teaspoon of salt, moistened and put upon the tongue of a patient during an epileptic fit, affords immediate relief."

Finally, both Mrs. Child and Exquemelin, in his The Buccaneers of America, agree on the cure for what they refer to as "the itch." This, of course, would have been the infestation of various crawling, biting parasites that have the habit of crawling around on the human body. Particularly in warmer climates the problem could become incapacitating fairly quickly. The recommended remedy is as follows:

... to stand half an hour, or more, in a tight barrel, cover to the throat with old blankets or carpets; two or three lighted brimstone matches should be placed inside the barrel, by means of a small hole near the bottom, and every crevice stopped, that no smoke may escape. It is well to take moderate doses of sulphur, night and morning, for some days after.

Exquemelin notes that this cure was risky at best at sea and generally reserved for times ashore, such as when careening or plundering.

Header: The Astrolabe and Zelee Aground in the Torres Strait by Louis le Breton c 1810s via Wikimedia


Timmy! said...

None of these cures sounds very pleasant, Pauline... But then, I guess that is the point.

Pauline said...

It does seem like the old "medicine has to hurt to work" idea applies on all of these. But so it does on many of our treatments to this day. At least, that's what my body tells me regularly...

Irwin Bryan said...

By the Clipper Ship era captains had numbered pills to give for certain maladies. But I read of one instance where Pill #6 was called for but there weren't any so he gave Pill #2 and Pill #4 to equal 6!

Pauline said...

Nautical thinking at its finest! Thanks for sharing that one, Irwin.

Munin said...

...and "the itch" (more on that in a minute.)

For a moment there, I though this post was going to take a sharp left down sodomy avenue. -_- That aside, some of these remedies have awesome ingredients. Much more inventive than the fish wife cures my grandmother used to come up with when I was a kid, but I'm sure they were part and parcel of the same universe of thought. Science, rational thought, and healthy scepticism aside, it is remarkable to me just how much general rules of thumb and trains of thought are passed on down through generations of families and not even questioned at face value.

My grandmother is sadly passed away, but if you asked her on her death bed what the best cure for polio was, she would probably say vinegar. Vinegar could cure almost anything back then. And by back then I mean the early 80's. What happened to vinegar? That stuff used to be badass! Hahaha.