Quack medicine is nothing new. Over the centuries, people have ingested some pretty disgusting things in hopes of curing whatever ails them. Consider some of the following examples from history:
Mellified Man: Take one male volunteer aged 70 or 80, bathe him, and feed him with nothing but honey. Upon his death (usually within a month), seal him in a coffin filled with honey. Age for 100 years, then break the seals. The recipe for mellified man, a confection that could allegedly treat broken and wounded limbs, appears in Chinese naturalist Li Shih-chen’s compendium, Chinese Materia Medica, published in 1597. Although Li heard rumors of mellified men being prepared in Arabia, he was not able to confirm the veracity of these reports, which is a shame since mellified man sounds like a much more palatable treat than plain old mummy powder.
Mummy Powder: From the 12th through the 17th century, any European apothecary worth his smelling salts kept a supply of mummy powder on hand. Mummy was the health food of the Middle Ages, guaranteed to cure everything from headaches to stomach ulcers, and plasters made from mummy powder were often slathered over tumors. Humans weren’t the only beings alleged to benefit from mummy; sick hawks were thought to benefit from their own grade of mummy powder. The demand for the mummified far outweighed the supply; one couldn’t just walk up to a pyramid-shaped rock and start digging. One could, however, dig up some dead and desiccated bodies, grind them down, and sell them as “mummy powder.” It’s doubtful anyone ever noticed the difference.
The King’s Drops: This concoction, made from the essence of powdered human skull, was made popular thanks to a royal endorsement. Charles II of England, who became very interested in chemistry during his exile in France, purchased the rights to the remedy for £6,000 from Jonathan Goddard, a famous surgeon and professor at London’s Gresham College. Formerly “Goddard’s Drops,” this panacea became known as the “King’s Drops,” and Charles II manufactured and sold it himself. While the skull was a key ingredient in this draught supposed to promote health and vigor, the presence of opium probably helped its heady effects along. Plenty of other physicians developed skull-based medications, including Sir Kenelm Digby, who treated epileptics with the skull of a man who had died a violent death, and Thomas Willis, who thought a little chocolate mixed with a human skull was the best cure for apoplexy.
Gladiator Blood and Liver: Between the first and the sixth century a single theological and several medical authors reported on the consumption of gladiator’s blood or liver to cure epileptics. The origins of the sacred properties of the blood of a slain gladiator likely lie in Etruscan funeral rites. Although the influence of this religious background faded during the Roman Republic, the magical use of gladiators’ blood continued for centuries. After the prohibition of gladiatorial combat in about 400 AD, an executed individual (particularly beheaded ones) became the “legitimate” successor to the gladiator. Occasional indications in early modern textbooks on medicine as well as reports in the popular literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries document the existence of this ancient magical practice until modern times. Spontaneous recovery of some forms of epilepsy may be responsible for the illusion of therapeutic effectiveness and for the confirming statements by physicians who have commented on this cure.
Human Fat Ointments: For sufferers of joint and bone pain, muscle cramps, and nerve damage, salves of extruded human fat, often mixed with animal fat, blood, marrow, and beer, were recommended. In some regions of Europe, executed criminals and slain enemy combatants would be brought to processing labs, where their corpses would be boiled and their fat rendered. Hangmen in the Netherlands sometimes held the job of surgeon-executioner, tightening a man’s noose one day and selling ointments made from his corpse the next. An article in the October 1922 issue of the American Journal of Pharmacy claimed that “Hangman’s Salve,” also known as “Poor Sinner’s Fat,” was still in vogue among the Dutch to treat dislocations and lameness. However, given that the Netherlands had outlawed capital punishment 70 years earlier, it was unlikely that these “human salves” were the genuine article.
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