Susan here, hoping you all are feeling healthy! Spring is on its way, but we’re still in this damp, cold wintry season, where colds and flu viruses can flourish. We have fortunate and fast access to all sorts of help—with either a trip to the doctor’s office or a trip to the local pharmacy, we can get over-the-counter or prescription cough and cold remedies, flu shots, antibiotics and more. But viruses, in one form or another, have been around for ages. What did people do in the days before guaifenesin, nasal sprays, amoxicillin and so on? Some of the natural remedies we use routinely to defeat colds and flu in particular were recognized as useful centuries ago, and many are being studied today and found to be effective to some degree.
Some common treatments used long ago and in some form now are garlic, which helps reduce phlegm and has natural antibacterial properties, willow, which as a natural salicylate helps reduce fever, licorice root and marshmallow root for coughs, honey, known for its antiviral and antibacterial and throat-soothing properties (honey and lemon in hot tea is just the best when you’re feeling sick!) – and there’s peppermint for upset tummies, and of course chicken soup, the practically legendary all-purpose cold and flu remedy (and science has proven that it has properties that really do work. All these things and way more can help when we’re suffering from sneezy, drippy, hoarse, feverish miseries.
And of course, there’s the hot toddy if you so prefer, a concoction of whisky, honey, hot water, sometimes lemon and spices, which certainly relaxes the cold sufferer if nothing else, but it can help open the breathing, soothe the throat with its heat, and generally make you feel better! Hot toddies originated in Scotland in the 18th century, they say, as a blend of hot water, honey, and spices including nutmeg and cinnamon meant to disguise the no doubt noxious burn of raw whisky, perhaps in the days before the whisky was appropriately aged in sherry casks to add flavor and depth. Doctoring raw liquor led perhaps to the accidental discovery that toddies helped those with runny noses, fevers and coughs feel some relief. An 18th century physician advised, for colds and influenza, rest, fluids, lemons and oranges, al though he might have been thinking of that new fad, the hot toddy, when he said “many attempt to cure a cold by getting drunk . . . but it is a very hazardous and fool-hardy experiment.”
I would down a pitcher of hot toddies, gallons of chicken soup and long strings of garlic any day over some other remedies used in the past, which we may hope will never reappear as natural remedies today.
For instance, Henry VIII would take, and recommended heartily, a treatment for the sweating sickness—a potion
made from mustard seed, milk thistle, water of dragons, and powdered unicorn horn. Mustard seed and milk thistle—okay, but, er, what exactly were the sources of water of dragons and powdered unicorn horn really? Only the apothecary knows.
When a tonic of hyssop, wine, ginger, cumin and figs—or a variety of other concoctions—did not work to cure hoarseness and cough in the 15th century, there was always bloodletting, a general cure-all believed to clear bad humors out of the body, leaving the patient weak but cleansed. A slice on the arm, a bowl to catch the blood and all that invisible badness in it, perhaps a leech or two stuck on fast, and you were good as new. Too bad they didn’t give out orange juice and cookies, since it was a blood donation.
A gooey blend of nut oil, wine, rue, marjoram, rosemary, lard and zinc oxide was used as a rub for chest congestion as well as a burn salve in medieval Italy. Might have worked for sunburn too!
For centuries, the apparently magical properties of mercury made it a handy little cure-all for everything from coughs to cuts to syphilis. If you survived a dose of mercury, you were hardy indeed. Medical uses for mercury survived well into the 20th century, and many of us are still walking around with it in our tooth fillings.
All sorts of snake oils and wacky concoctions were sold in the 19th century that were wildly irresponsible by today’s standards. Back then they did not quite realize the harmful effects of plenty of morphine and opium in cough syrups, or adding chloroform to a syrup to help calm fretful babies.
Inhaling the smoke from a “carbolic smoke ball” – a hollow rubber ball filled with carbolic acid and fitted with a tube for the nose—was also advertised as a remedy for everything from colds, cough and catarrh to deafness and headache.
But there was one particular cure-all, believed in the medieval and Renaissance eras to be very efficacious — the use of urine for all sorts of medical treatments. Judging a person’s health by the state of their urine—color, density, amount, and so on—is still done today, but we stop short at drinking it. Yes, drinking it. Urine was thought to have benefits to help all sorts of ailments. Sometimes animal urine was recommended—and sometimes the best remedy was downing a cup of one’s own product.
Robert Record, physician and author of “The Urinal of Physick” in 1665, wrote that one physician of his acquaintance “did drive away the Ague above 8 times with the only drinking of his own Urine, at the beginning of the sickness. And many still do of the same practice, and it proveth well, and likewise many men do.” And let that be a lesson to those of us who would not prefer to take a swig of that! Record also used more than half his book to bash the suspect efforts of many doctors, apothecaries, and chirurgeons.
I asked Dr. Josh, nephrologist and toxicologist, who acts as an amiable medical research consultant for some of the Wenches (and who occasionally blogs for us about medical history), about some of these early and strange cures.
“Medicine at that time was at a crossroads,” says he, “the influence of ancient Greek and Persian physicians was in contest with physicians like Paracelsus. The followers of the ancients (Team Galen) adhered to theories like the four humors; Team Paracelsus and his like believed that experience is the best teacher. Paracelsus, grandfather of modern toxicology among other accomplishments, said 'There is more medicine in my little finger than in the works of Galen and Avicenna.' As a university lecturer, at one point Paracelsus piled up medical texts and lit them in a bonfire. (He wasn't asked back for the next year). He was an alchemist who sometimes recommended toxic 'cures,’ and though he stayed pretty healthy himself, it’s recorded that he died in a bar fight.
"Team Paracelsus ultimately won," Dr. Josh explains, "though it took centuries. The evidence-based medicine that we follow today came from his philosophy. Many modern treatments are derived from early herbal remedies, but for every useful suggestion there is a bizarre treatment with little basis in reality that would surely worsen the unfortunate patient’s condition.”
So, the next time your throat feels a little scratchy and your nose starts running, mix yourself a hot toddy, toss some extra garlic in the chicken soup, get some extra rest – and be glad your doctor is not suggesting that you break out the powdered unicorn horn, slap on a few leeches, or sip a little fresh pee!
The closing page of Robert Record's book. And I am the well-wisher of your health too!